It has been my experience throughout life that, in general, people like to be nice. There are definite exceptions and many of them spent this past weekend marching and protesting and howling like infants and some outright rioting and attacking people and destroying property (yes, that is violence), but on the whole, not only do people generally realize that being nice causes them fewer problems in the long run, but being nice also makes you feel good. You smile at someone and try to make their day a little easier and it warms your heart when they smile back or just look a little relieved. And if they choose to be a jerk back to you then you have the satisfaction of knowing you didn’t start it.
At its core, political correctness in the USA is more or less requiring everyone to “be nice,” at least in theory. The problem with this is twofold: one, “nice” is being defined by people who not only have the standards of Puritan scolds when it comes to things they dislike while they themselves refuse to do pretty much anything they’re told, and two, when you make being “nice” in this sense mandatory, you take away some of the magic of niceness. If you have the option to be a jerk, and in fact sometimes you might be within your rights to be indignant and impatient and demanding, but you choose instead to be gentle and kind and understanding, that makes a large part of the impression of being nice. If, however, you are required to be nice under pain of punishment or stigma, that element of voluntarism goes away and with it the power of sincerity. It’s like a stubborn child being forced to apologize for something he’s really not sorry about, you know he doesn’t mean it and therefore it doesn’t mean anything (other than a lesson for the kid). Add in the factor of government or other coercion to regulate your speech and some of the out-there things that PC advocates want brought under the umbrella of “unacceptable speech” and you soon find natural skepticism and even rebellion kicking in, not as a knee-jerk response to being told what to do, but as resistance to the thought police.
To use myself as an example, I like being nice. I make a point of being nice to people and only recently did I reach the point where I just unload both barrels on trolls and idiots who either deliberately don’t get it or whose point is so disgusting that they don’t deserve to be treated nicely. But in general, I show respect to everyone and treat them all like at least my moral and intellectual equal even when they clearly aren’t, I use the term “Ms.” instead of “Miss” to try not to ruffle feathers even though “Ms.” is a feminist nonsense construct, and so on. If a black person asked me to refer to him as “African-American” I wouldn’t get into an argument about how he wasn’t from Africa, I’d say “okay” and hope I remembered.
But there are limits, and when the scenario turns from “I am deciding to go the extra mile to be respectful” to “you are required to use these terms” then I stop. I refuse to use the expression “person of color” because it’s divisive and frankly silly (white is a color you know), and I refuse to use the word “womyn” or any particular pronoun someone makes up to define himself because they’re made-up words, and I refuse to call an illegal alien an “undocumented immigrant” because it’s not true–makes him sound like he was legal but he just lost his instruction manual or something. I’m not trying to be mean but I’m not going to participate in anyone’s foolish fantasy or legitimize them by using their made-up words and pretend doublespeak.
The plain fact is that the people who want to enforce their view of niceness are usually not very nice at all about how they do it. They’re usually entitled, arrogant and condescending about their demands, if not outright angry, threatening, or even violent, and when you’re coming from a position often devoid of logic and driven entirely by feelings you need to engender as much goodwill as you can to get your point across. Somehow they missed that memo and think that being shrill, stubborn, and difficult is the way to convince people that they ought to get their way. It’s back to the rebellious kid example, wherein he’s demanding ice cream or the television or a new video game and he thinks the way to go about getting it is to pee on the carpet or refuse to do his chores. The proper response in both cases is not to capitulate but to reject such demands outright, but all too often in society the reply has been to stand down, accede, and let them get away with it.
And this causes the real problem with niceness. At times you have to wonder, am I doing this because I want to, or am I doing this because I feel obligated? Am I using “Ms.” because I think it’s somehow respectful or because I am cowering in fear of some feminist overlord? Am I showing respect to this person not because he is a fellow human being but because his skin is a different color from mine? Are they wondering the same thing? And so the act of being nice for its own sake suddenly has strings attached and a cloud of uncertainty behind what used to be a win for everyone involved. As a result, coercion removes part of the value of niceness for the receiver, and capitulation removes part of its purity for the giver. Nice is not nice anymore.
The only way I can come up with to deal with this is to set your own boundaries and do your best to be honest with yourself. When it comes down to it I don’t mind using Ms. in correspondence and honestly I don’t find a lot of reasons to note when a person I’m working with or talking to is a member of a grievance group. I will not accept some things any more than I will accept some arguments–“cisgender” is not a word any more than “a fetus is not a human being” is a legitimate point of view. At the end of the day I know I am being nice for its own sake, and while nice might not have the same market value as it once did, it’s still worth doing. It’s not the first thing PC culture has wrecked and it won’t be the last.