Be Nice....Or Else!!!!
Compulsory positivity allows the elite to get away with murder...or just bad TV
By Nat Cohen
Nat Cohen is a Los Angeles based attorney and writer with a background in indigent criminal defense and eviction prevention.
If you’ve spent time on the internet since 2016, you’ve probably seen the meme: it’s a drawing of two people, with one holding the other’s mouth shut and saying “shhh… let people enjoy things.” The image, drawn by Adam Ellis from a webcomic skewering a sanctimonious nerd who doesn’t like football, has since been deprived of context and embraced by sanctimonious nerds everywhere.
The meme is old in internet years, and probably used with irony more than sincerity these days. But the ethos lives on, and it’s become an inverse of itself: to just let people enjoy things really means you must enjoy things. Your failure to enjoy them could jeopardize someone else’s fun, or, seemingly, their entire sense of self. This phenomenon has been well covered, but less explored is the extent to which it’s metastasized into an assault against anything mean or critical. Positivity and niceness are productive; negativity is a waste of time.
Ed Sheeran recently told Rolling Stone that music streaming services have rendered music critics obsolete: “Why do you need to read a review? Listen to it. It’s freely available!” Buzzfeed’s long standing book review policy is to only provide positive coverage: “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” Buzzfeed just shut down its News division as part of a wider 15% “workforce reduction,” but it’s unclear if the good-vibes-only books section will endure.
Being nice to people is, generally, a good way to live. But niceness can be stultifying, toothless, flattening. Everyone knows the old saying: “If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all.” It’s worth asking who wants you to say nothing though, and why.
Ted Lasso, the feel-good pandemic hit about an earnest American football coach running a British football team, won a Peabody award for its “charming dose of radical optimism,” and for “offering the perfect counter to the enduring prevalence of toxic masculinity, both on-screen and off.” Since then, it’s inspired a familiar microcosm of adoration, backlash, and backlash to the backlash. That, by itself, is hardly worth mentioning—it's what happens to almost any pop culture phenomenon with some staying power.
What sets Ted Lasso apart is how its avowed goodness is supposed to shield it from critique. The pushback to bad reviews isn’t because of its artistic merit, but because of its niceness. How could anyone be mean about something so kind and heartwarming?
The show itself seems to agree. In its currently airing third season, a former player holds a grudge against a sports journalist for an old article calling him “overhyped” and “mediocre.” The journalist apologizes, and explains himself: “I thought I was being edgy. I was trying to make a name for myself. All I really did was look for the worst in people. I’m sorry.” This thinly veiled, thin-skinned projection seems meant for the show’s real life haters, who dare reject “the pop culture equivalent of a hug.”
Writing off critique as performative and cynical is part of what makes compulsory niceness so toxic. It equates criticism with petty hatred, and haters are easily dismissed as unproductive and cruel. That bodes well for the status quo—less so for those who are angry about it, much less those who are mean about it.
In a move too on the nose for satire, Ted Lasso’s stars have now been enlisted by the White House as spokespeople for Mental Health Awareness. Ted Lasso himself, Jason Sudeikis, had this to say: “We shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help ourselves… that does take a lot, especially when it’s something that has such a negative stigma to it, such as mental health, and it doesn’t need to be that way.”
It’s true, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help, and there shouldn’t be any negative stigma attached to seeking mental health treatment. Unfortunately, the fear associated with asking for that help isn’t just the fear of judgment—it’s the fear of medical bills, of loss of income, even of criminalization.
Biden’s White House would like you to watch these nice people from the nice TV show spread awareness, in case you are not sufficiently conscious of your own fragile mental state. If you instead question how “awareness” will keep millions of eligible people from losing Medicaid coverage, or whether it can prevent the torture and starvation of mentally ill people in prison, or how it will alleviate the nearly $200 billion in medical debt Americans are saddled with… well, have you considered that kindness is free?
Ted Lasso is, unfortunately, but one example of this compulsory niceness. A recent profile in Wired of bestselling Mormon author Brandon Sanderson went viral mostly because it was lambasted for being too mean. Even people who had never heard of Sanderson, much less read him, were outraged by it. Sanderson himself felt betrayed by the writeup, but urged his fans not to attack anyone over it. The profile called Sanderson a bore, and pointed out that his prose isn’t very good. Nothing was particularly cruel or embarrassing; its author mostly seemed disappointed that Sanderson wasn’t much fun to write about.
For the crime of being not nice enough, the author was relentlessly attacked by a dizzying array of craven tech ghouls: Dogecoin’s creator, Billy Markus, called him “a piece of shit human.” Lulu Cheng Meservey, the top comms exec for Activision Blizzard, took issue with the “sneering tone” and “gratuitous meanness.” Meservy has received her own measure of online notoriety for making anti-union statements in service of a company accused of widespread sexual harassment and abuse. (But at least she cares about being kind.)
In a rosier profile published by Esquire days later, Sanderson stated: “I do give to my church of my personal funds. I also give to many other causes. The actual numbers and amounts are, generally, private.” Ten percent is the typical tithing expectation for Latter-Day Saints, which in Sanderson’s case would mean at least $1 million per year to an institution accused of widespread child sex abuse, anti-LGBTQ policies, and racism. But I’m just being a hater.
Compulsory niceness tells us that nice people who write nice books don’t deserve bad reviews, and they certainly don’t deserve scrutiny for what those nice books can buy them, whether it’s a nerdy “underground supervillain lair” or a ticket to Mormon heaven. The nice books make people happy.
This philosophy shares some DNA with the Effective Altruism (EA) movement, nominally “a programme for rationalizing charitable giving, positioning individuals to do the ‘most good’ per expenditure of money or time.” In theory, EA is a way for philanthropic rich people to maximize their positive impact on humanity by “earning to give.” In other words, as long as they give the money away, someday, no one should care how they made it. Dwelling on the systemic causes that necessitate philanthropy is, like negativity, “inefficient—a waste of time.”
In practice, EA’s most effective output has been the whitewashing of its biggest champions, like disgraced FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried. It’s unsurprising, then, that crypto shills and tech execs rushed to Sanderson’s defense; they stand to benefit most from a culture that rewards fawning, incurious coverage. Elon Musk once told reporter Owen Thomas he wouldn’t answer any of his questions about Tesla, because Thomas “wasn’t sufficiently interested in painting a positive portrait of the company.” For years, Musk has lied to credulous reporters about fully autonomous Teslas, solving traffic with Hyperloop, getting to Mars, and the ability to “save and replay memories” with Neuralink brain chips. That growing list of broken promises hasn’t prevented his most loyal fans from leaping to his defense, and begging for a spot on Colony X, or whatever his fake space society will (never) be called.
MrBeast, the viral YouTuber and stunt philanthropist who is somehow worth hundreds of millions of dollars, has a passionate, lucrative fanbase of his own. Over the last few months, he’s received both praise and condemnation for videos like “Giving Shoes To 20,000 Kids in Africa” and “1,000 Blind People See For the First Time,” which help participants while also exploiting them for views.
Even if MrBeast didn’t have any skeletons in his closet, his brand of charitable giving raises some of the same issues as EA. Philanthropy gives the rich power and influence without any public accountability, and launders their reputations (and fortunes) through charitable whims. A healthy, functioning society would have no need for philanthropists, and especially not for viral stunt, soy-facing ones. Since we don’t live in a healthy or functioning society, we are left with videos like this, of MrBeast tipping a waitress with a car covered in ugly branding for his chocolate company.
MrBeast defends his stunt philanthropy as a means to generate more charitable giving: “That’s the whole point, make content around helping people to generate more money to help more people.” Although it’s difficult to estimate how much of his fortune is given away each year, Forbes thinks “much more is coming in” than going out the door.
Despite this, his legion of fans are fiercely loyal; one fan who cleaned up a MrBeast chocolate display at Walmart saw it as “a small way” for him “to help out with the work [MrBeast’s] putting out there” and an opportunity “to be a part of something much bigger” than himself. Another fan tidied the Walmart display because it’s always been his life goal “to be able to help anyone in any way” that he could. Unsurprisingly, these loyal fans are quick to pile on any haters as ungrateful, jealous and mean.
Compulsory niceness flattens the distinctions between the wealthy, powerful elite and the rest of us, because it pretends we all share the same goal: to smile, and pretend that everything is good, maybe better than it’s ever been! But most of us know, and acutely feel, that things are very bad, and that the social change we need will not be nice, or even peaceful. It will not come from rich philanthropists, or from establishment politicians. In fact, it will have to come at their expense. If they’re this scared of mean tweets, imagine how scared they’ll be then.