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May 14, 2020 467 0 Deacon Doug Mcmanaman
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The Tyranny Of Niceness

Last week, I posed a question to my students as our class began. “If a nuclear missile struck us in the next few seconds, and we all died, would you go to Heaven? Raise your hand, if you think you would definitely go straight to Heaven.” I was surprised that only one girl put up her hand, but I was pleased that the rest did not, because we cannot hope for what we are certain of. Hope is a virtue that we need until the day we meet our Maker. We should pray daily in the hope that God will have mercy on us, but none of us can be certain of our eternal destiny until we meet God face to face.

Then it occurred to me, that their restraint might not be about hope at all. So, I asked them: “How many believe that you would go to Hell if died this minute?” About five of them raised their hands. Since these were girls of very fine character, I asked one of them: “Why do you think you’re going to Hell?” She answered, “Because I’m not nice. I don’t take any BS”. I asked another, and she said much the same thing.

I almost fell over. “Where did you get the idea that holiness is about being nice? And why do you think that being assertive is contrary to holiness?”

We live in a culture dominated by the tyranny of niceness, where it is more important to be nice than to be truly good. Niceness has become more important than Truth. That’s why I find it so hard to get teenagers to raise objections in class. If they hear anything they disagree with, or they wish to dispute a point, they remain silent. They’ve learnt that arguing, asking difficult questions, or challenging the teacher is disrespectful.

We don’t live in a culture of debate anymore. When I was young, I watched a show called The Great Debate. They’d debate controversial issues, then the audience would vote at the end. We no longer see programs like that, and very few schools have debating clubs. To use a phrase coined by Pope Benedict XVI, we live under the dictatorship of relativism. Relativism is the tyrant behind the tyranny of niceness. Relativism denies that there is absolute Truth. It denies that there are absolute moral precepts, or that certain actions are intrinsically wrong (such as abortion, active euthanasia, adultery, contraception, pornography and fornication). So, it naturally follows that if there is no Truth, there’s nothing to debate; because debate is about uncovering Truth. In a relativistic culture, everyone has their own truth, and everything must be tolerated, except the belief that some actions are wrong and there is absolute Truth. That’s a nice culture, a very agreeable one, where debate must be shut down because it results in hurt feelings.

Therefore, students who challenge a point in class are castigated for not being nice. Argument has been openly discouraged. Just accept what you’re being taught. And what is being taught is not at all controversial. Why not? Because it’s not nice to talk about controversial things like abortion, fornication and homosexuality, for example, because these are ‘divisive’, and someone could be offended. In other words, Truth takes a backseat to sensitivity. So, the most fundamental modern moral directive – the one commandment that replaces the Ten Commandments of old – is: “Thou Shalt be Sensitive”. Love has now come to mean sensitivity.

We’ve all heard the expression “The truth hurts”. Speaking the truth can cause people to feel uncomfortable. It is not ‘nice’ to make people feel discomfort, but speaking the truth is sometimes the most loving thing you can do. Having your stomach sliced open with a scalpel isn’t a nice experience, but my doctor did a very loving thing years ago when he cut me open to remove a cancer. Not nice, but loving.

A local psychologist wrote about the adverse psychological effects of the tyranny of niceness. It tends to bring about a split in one’s entire personality, a dis-integration of the character, because instead of speaking honestly, one has to remain silent, or say nice things, regardless of whether or not they are true. I have had colleagues who say the nicest things, the most positive things, when they know they are not being sincere. “How was that field trip?” “It was great!”, they glibly answer, but when you question them further, they eventually admit that it was a disaster – a complete waste of time. Why did they say it was great? They’re stuck for an answer. It’s the tyranny of niceness. If we speak frankly, we’ll look like cranks or ogres. When I started teaching, one Principal always told us that we were all doing a wonderful job. He knew that wasn’t true. Only some were doing a good job, but it’s not nice to too honest. This kind of personal dis-integrity can have serious adverse consequences down the road, both psychologically and spiritually.

Well, holiness is not niceness. Holiness is heroic faith, heroic hope, and heroic charity (supernatural love of God). Jesus is Holiness itself, the perfection of holiness, the fountain of all holiness. But read the Gospels. He wasn’t nice, especially to the Pharisees. St. Paul wasn’t always that nice. Note what he said to the Galatians: “As for me, brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why do the attacks on me continue?… Would that those who are troubling you might go the whole way, and castrate themselves!” (Gal 5, 11-12). Not a nice thing to say, but Paul is a saint. Study the life of St. Padre Pio, one of the greatest saints in the 20th century. He was not always nice, but he was a man of heroic charity.

The letter to the Romans wasn’t nice at all, by today’s standards. It would be horribly offensive to a large number of people: “Let us conduct ourselves properly, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy… make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”

Sexual integrity is so important, because sexual immorality affects our ability to relate to each other. It affects marriage, which is the foundation of the family, the fundamental unit of society. Sadly, most people today, including educators, are silent on sexual morality, because they fear causing offence. Unfortunately, some priests and bishops have become disciples of the tyranny of niceness, which is why we rarely hear about controversial issues from the pulpit.

How do we prepare for the Second Coming of Christ? By growing in holiness and personal integrity. Lust above all has the power to destroy that integrity. Neurosurgeon Donald Hilton has recently written about the effects of pornography on the brain. The research is very disconcerting, especially in light of the revelation that 87% of college males and 31% of females view pornography. He says that pornography causes a disruption of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is essential for human beings to desire appropriate pleasures in life. Without it, we would not eat; we would not procreate, nor would we even try to win a game of checkers.

Addiction is caused by overuse of the dopamine reward system. When the neural pathways are used compulsively, dopamine is decreased. The dopamine cells begin to shrink or atrophy. The pleasure reward centres of the brain crave dopamine, so the brain re-wires itself. The “pleasure thermostat” is reset, producing a new “normal” state. To feel normal, the person must capitulate to their addiction increasingly to raise dopamine to high enough levels.

That is the case with all addictions, but especially sexual addiction, which establishes itself very rapidly and is the hardest to overcome.

Most importantly, Hilton points out that the frontal lobes of the brain, located just above the eyes, also atrophy, and these lobes have important connections to the pleasure pathways in the brain, so that pleasure can be controlled. The frontal lobes are important in our ability to make judgments. If the brain was a car, the frontal lobes would be the brakes. When they atrophy, a person’s ability to process the consequences of the addictive behaviour is impaired. This neurological decline is analogous to brake pads wearing out in a car. People who suffer from frontal lobe damage are impulsive, acting without any thought about consequences. They are compulsively fixated on certain objects or behaviours. They experience sudden and unpredictable mood swings and their judgment is impaired.

Dr. Victor Cline, in his essay on the effects of pornography on adults and children, says that it dramatically reduces a person’s capacity to love, resulting in a dissociation of sex from friendship, affection, caring, and other emotions that are part and parcel of healthy marriages. He says a person’s sexual side becomes dehumanized, and many will develop an “alien ego state” or dark side, “whose core is antisocial lust devoid of most values”.

The consequences this has on marriage are devastating. Cambridge anthropologist Dr J. D. Unwin examined the effects of sexual restraint and sexual abandon in 86 cultures, spanning 5, 000 years. He found that cultures practising strict monogamy exhibited “creative social energy”, culminating in “the zenith of production”. However, cultures in which there was no restraint on sexuality deteriorated into mediocrity and chaos, without exception.

As time goes on, sexual restraint in our culture continues to loosen. As it becomes more sexually abandoned, we are witnessing a steady decline in marriage. The consequences of marriage and family breakup, as any teacher knows, are calamitous.

Real men are becoming rare in western society. Many of our male celebrities are stuck in a perpetual adolescence. A boy does not have control over his passions, but is led by them. A man possesses himself by governing his passions and subjecting them to reason. A boy loves things for what they do for him, but a real man loves another for who they are, not for what they do for him. Many young couples give up on marriage because they have not learned to rise above hardship through an act of the will. Many think life—and marriage—is about non-stop exhilaration.

To be truly happy, we need to take St. Paul’s words seriously: “Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy… But put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”

In the struggle for personal integrity, we have to cultivate chastity in ourselves and foster it in our children. It is impossible to grow in holiness and prepare for eternal life without chastity. We have to be careful and prudent parents, assertive parents. We need to stop being so nice. Tell them the truth with compassion and consideration. Witness to the truth which they are being cheated of. It is a sacred duty which we must not shirk.

Deacon Doug Mcmanaman

is a retired teacher of religion and philosophy in Southern Ontario. He lectures on Catholic education at Niagara University. His ministry as a deacon is to those who suffer from mental illness.

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