Goodness & Niceness: Ellen DeGeneres and Our Dysfunctional Moral Barometer

Ellen DeGeneres at the premiere of Finding Dory in Hollywood, Calif., in 2016. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuter)

Our dysfunctional moral barometer

There’s a perverse incentive when it comes to manners. Acquire a reputation for being rude, and you may pleasantly surprise people when you are polite. Acquire a reputation for being “nice” — make “be kind” your million-dollar brand — and your good name will disintegrate with the first whiff of unpleasantness. So it went with Ellen DeGeneres.

From a woman trying to break into comedy in the 1980s, to coming out as lesbian in the 1990s, DeGeneres first rose to fame as a lovable underdog. Back then it was practical (as well as nice) to be nice. Her smiley tolerance in the face of attacks was a smart move (far more effective to leave it to others to cry “misogynist” and “homophobe”). But now DeGeneres has a net worth of $330 million and is a highly fashionable LGBTQ+ icon with an army of celebrities ready to defend her at the first sign of trouble. She’s no longer an underdog. And rumor has it she’s not “nice” either.

In July, BuzzFeed News reported former and current staff members’ complaints that the Ellen show was a “toxic work environment.” The allegations included being denied medical and compassionate leave, sexual harassment, racism, and being instructed “to not speak to DeGeneres if they saw her around the office.” In response to the scandal, Australia’s Channel 9 pulled the show, DeGeneres apologized to the staff, and three top producers were fired.

James Bartholomew, who coined the term “virtue signaling,” has explained how the desire to appear good is often framed as oppositional:

It’s noticeable how often virtue signaling consists of saying you hate things. It is camouflage. The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are. If you were frank and said, ‘I care about the environment more than most people do’ or ‘I care about the poor more than others,’ your vanity and self-aggrandizement would be obvious . . . Anger and outrage disguise your boastfulness.

But DeGeneres, in fairness to her, has opted for a more direct approach, telling Larry King in 2004, and an audience in 2015, “I think I’m a good person.” She’s not the only one to do so. In a 2013 speech, President Obama said that “kindness covers all my political beliefs. When I think about what I’m fighting for, what gets me up every single day, that captures it just about as much as anything.” We saw something similar at this year’s Democratic National Convention, which was heavily focused on Biden’s being “profoundly decent.”

At the opening night of the Republican National Convention, Ronna McDaniel, RNC chairwoman, observed this in her remarks: “[The Democrats’] argument for Joe Biden boiled down to the fact that they think he’s a nice guy. Well let me tell you, raising taxes on 82 percent of Americans is not nice, eliminating 10 million good-paying oil and gas jobs is not nice, policies that force jobs to flee our country or allow abortion up until the point of birth are not nice.” As for Trump’s lack of niceness, McDaniel suggests that it’s not important, that Trump was merely being “tough,” in “fighting for the American people” against “‘nice guys’ like Joe [who] care more about countries like China and Iran than the United States of America.”

But Trump’s insults — “horseface,” “lowlife,” “fat,” “ugly,” “dummy,” “loser” — aren’t tough. They’re pathetic. So were Representative Ted Yoho’s (R., Fla.) insults hurled at Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.). And so, too, was Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s DNC tweet — which she later deleted and apologized for — mocking people with stutters. Hypocritical niceness does not justify reactionary nastiness.

Conservatives ought to take manners seriously. Burke wrote in his First Letter on a Regicide Peace (1796) that “manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend,” adding that “statesmen ought to know the different department of things; what belongs to laws, and what manners alone can regulate.” What’s lacking across the board is virtue — goodness, not mere niceness. In his 1981 book After Virtue, the Scottish philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre diagnosed ours as a “culture of emotivism,” emotivism being “the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling.” Today, this is a problem on the right as much as on the left.

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