Way Too Nice by Esther Nelson


esther-nelsonWhat an honor to have taken part in the Women’s March (Washington DC) last Saturday, January 21, 2017!  The event made visible the enormous number of people willing to give their time and effort to stand up and march for justice in the areas of women’s reproduction, immigration, race relations, LGBTQIA, the environment, and health care.  The most frequently-used chants that I heard during the march were: “Black Lives Matter” and the call and response “My body, my choice. Her body, her choice.”

There were “sister marches” in many cities across the U.S. as well as in cities and countries throughout the world.  And the marches (as far as I know) were all peaceful.  No arrests.

Because I did not want to drive in heavy traffic, I chose to take a Rally bus from Richmond, Virginia, to Washington DC for the event.  From Rally’s website: “Rally is crowdpowered travel for the 21st century. Our technology connects you with other riders going to the same event or destination, then delivers high-end buses to get you there and back.”

Overall, taking the bus was a good decision.  Because of the many vehicles on the road, the normal two-hour drive took three and half hours.  All but three of the fifty-two passengers on the bus were women. (Three were men.)  We were a friendly group.

The bus was scheduled to leave Washington DC at 7 p.m. after the march. The company informed us in communiques leading up to the event that the bus would not wait for people who did not show up on time. But the bus did wait.  Fifty people waited one hour for two people who never appeared.

The fifty people waiting on the bus for the two no-shows were quite patient.  By 7:15 p.m., though, some people became restless. “Let’s go.”  By 7:30 p.m., some people tried to figure out who had occupied the empty seats and locate them through social media.  By 7:45 p.m., I heard one woman say, “I really, really hate it when people are late.” At 7:55 p.m., I walked to the front of the bus to ask the driver and bus captain about our status.  “This hour-long wait is unacceptable.” I was polite, but direct and to-the-point.  We pulled out of the parking lot at 8:00 p.m.  I don’t think our egress took place because I complained, but the time of my inquiry coincided with the company’s decision to finally get going.

Upon reflecting on the experience, I can’t help but think that if the majority of the passengers on that bus had been men, we would not have waited an hour past our departure time to get moving.  Because of our socialization, we (women) are way too patient, way too accommodating, and just plain way too “nice.”

There comes a time when one cannot/should not be Ms. Nice Guy. We realize (sometimes too late) that all that wanting to be liked and all that accommodating others no matter what the cost is harmful—not just to ourselves, but to everybody within our social circles. Nor does being “nice” get us what we want. It arouses contempt from the patriarchy.

Patriarchy, that social system in which every one of us partakes, is all about domination. Men are socialized to be victors—win (read dominate) in every situation. Women are socialized to “make nice” (read don’t make waves for men). Goddess forbid, we offend the patriarchy’s sensibilities–its fragile ego and thin skin. It’s way past time to gird up our collective loins and push back at gendered expectations. Those expectations are killing us.

At 7:55 p.m., when I walked to the front of the bus to ask about our departure time, I felt tension fill the bus.  One woman shouted out to the bus captain, “It’s not your fault. Thank you for doing your job.”  Another woman shouted encouragement to the driver, “Thank you for driving the bus.” Nobody supported my statement, “This hour-long wait is unacceptable” even though prior to this, I heard people complaining to their seat companions about the long delay.  Seems that, collectively, we were all about “making nice.”

Hadn’t we just marched all day long carrying signs demanding justice?  “Resist.”  “Stop pussy footing with our health.” “I have not yet begun to nasty.” “Electile dysfunction.” “Thou shalt not deny women healthcare. Fallopians 20:17.” I realize that waiting an hour to leave our destination is not a big deal compared to the social issues we marched for. But I’m convinced that our role as accommodators all too easily rises to the surface. Our patriarchal system takes advantage of our penchant to “make nice,” perceiving it as weakness and hurling contempt our way. So what do we do?

The following is from Karen Stohr (New York Times, 1-23-17):

“Socially vulnerable people cannot win the battle for respect by using contempt as a way to demand it. In an environment where contempt is an acceptable language of communication, those who already lack social power stand to lose the most by being its targets. The only real defense against contempt is the consistent, strong and loud insistence that each one of us be regarded as a full participant in our shared political life entitled to hold all others accountable for how we are treated” [emphasis mine].

The groups we marched for last Saturday are all socially vulnerable (Black Americans, women, immigrants, the Earth, etc.). Our new president is expert at hurling contempt at most everybody, but especially the vulnerable. As Ms. Stohr notes, we must insist (strongly and loudly) that we be included in our public, political life. That probably means that we nasty women need to continue marching for a while—using our strong, loud voices to hold our leaders accountable.

Maybe, just maybe, our insistent public expressions demanding justice will seep into our private expressions. Perhaps next time the Rally bus will leave on time.  After all, isn’t the personal also political?

 

Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

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Categories: Activism, Feminism, General, Resistance

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12 replies

  1. Good point, and then too, the two who did not show up may not have been lost. They may have been “following the rules” having made a decision to stay longer and assuming that the bus would take off on time. Who knows? And since there was no violence at all, there was not a good reason to worry for their safety.

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  2. Good post and good information. Many thanks.

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  3. Being “nice” does arouse contempt from the patriarchy. Thank you for saying that. And “nice” is a cover word for women’s fear to stand up for themselves and others in social situations. I would ask that each woman take a few minutes to reflect upon what “nice” really means to them…We do so much damage with “nice” which almost never means having decency or integrity or honesty to ask for what we need. Great post.

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  4. First, since when are we so concerned about what arouses contempt in the patriarchy? To them, everything we do as Feminists arouses contempt, so to me that holds little weight in the choices I make. If we don’t want to be “nice” because that feeds their contempt, surely being “not nice” feeds it even more. Second, I believe that being kind is a good thing. (After all, isn’t ‘Love over Hate’ what the march was emphasizing?) Kindness and compassion is a human virtue, not just something over which women have a monopoly. I proudly consider myself to be a nice person. But when it’s time to be not nice, I’ve got that covered too. Even if I knew the rules and couldn’t logically be upset if I missed the bus, I sure would be grateful if I had gotten lost and it had waited for me. I personally would rather err on the side of compassion. I believe there is nothing wrong with taking care of each other. Not because we want to be liked, but because it’s the right thing to do. If we can’t model that for each other as well as for the patriarchy, then what’s the point? When it’s time to be not nice, I’m all for it. No sense in being a compassionate doormat. But I don’t consider “nice” to be a dirty word. And I will not allow contempt from the patriarchy to influence my decisions when to be nice or not. Because yes, the personal *is* the political.

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  5. Thank you for “weighing in,” Desiree. One of the things I aimed for in my post was to straddle that middle ground that Jesus spoke about when he sent the disciples out into the world: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Because we all live in a patriarchal society, it behooves us to know how best to navigate our way through that system. Using that “shrewdness” and “innocence” as a principle for our behavior sounds like a worthy goal. I used the bus experience as an example of structured patriarchy and how our response to that structure so often is accommodation.. My use of the word “nice” does not equate with the words kindness and compassion. Perhaps my effort to get my point across didn’t work as well as I had hoped.

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  6. Thanks, Esther, for this provocative post. It’s too bad that our paths didn’t cross in DC, because I was there, too, with my pregnant daughter.

    I come from the part of the country where “nice” is the default behavior (so-called “middle America”). But I’m a pretty straightforward communicator, so I haven’t always fit into that pattern, especially since becoming a feminist in my 20s. That being said, I think “nice” is a broad term. It sometimes includes compassion and care, and it sometimes includes playing into the expected behavior of our culture, whether that’s what women are supposed to be or what every person is supposed to be. I agree with you that we need to push ourselves as women to stand up for our rights — and after that march, I really believe we will see more of that — and I agree with Desiree that we need to model compassion and civility at a time when both of those are in short supply (As an example, I just read about a White House Leak that quoted Trump as saying, “I don’t care about abortion. I doesn’t effect me, so why should I care?”). I will never be a compassionate doormat (great term, Desiree), but I also have become less reactive as I’ve become an elder, and nowadays often give people the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think I would have waited an hour to protest the bus’ lack of movement, but I was glad that the march was non-violent and emphasized “Love Trumps Hate.” Nuance or both/and are what we need in this discussion.

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    • Thank you, Nancy, for your response. How would we ever have found each other amongst the throngs last Saturday in Washington?! I barely managed to meet up with one of my sisters! We communicated our whereabouts (via text message) several times before coming face-to-face. Am happy to hear about marches coming up in the future–“tax march” to encourage DT to release his taxes, LGBTQIA coming up in June, I believe an Earth Day march for the environment, also the scientists are trying to get something off the ground as well. I hope future marches would be as peaceful, kind, and loving as the Women’s March ;-) We may yet meet up!

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  7. Thanks, Esther, for digging into a topic I believe we must take a long, hard look at together. On the subject of women being “nice” and “kind” in these times, I recently read this piece from an herbalist that I found to be an interesting further exploration of this particular topic. Sharing here in case anyone is interested in continuing to think about this topic: https://woolgatheringwildcrafting.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/nice-girls-vs-kind-women/

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    • What an excellent link, Kate. Thank you for sending. This was especially helpful: “When we devote ourselves to being nice girls we give up both agency and power. At its root, the very world “nice” is something that is defined by others. One does not declare oneself to be nice. Nice is a title that is bestowed upon you by those you have pleased, a reward for agreeability. Your skill at fulfilling this role is wholly judged, decided and anointed by others. As nice girls, we don’t have the power to decide whether or not we are good; this lies directly in the hands of those who judge us to be nice.”

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