“Are You a Nice Person?”
The End Does Not Justify the Means
I was purposefully walking past Bryant Park, toward Grand Central, eager to not miss my train. I had a movie date with my son and I didn’t want to be late. It was a beautiful evening. Winter had turned into Spring within the afternoon, moving from a morning snowstorm to a beautiful sunset, harbinger of a lovely weekend. In my newly more open demeanor, I locked eyes with a young and appealing college-aged woman. I remembered being like her. I could be her mom. I smiled. She moved in. I saw the clipboard and groaned inwardly. “Do you have a minute?” Just as I was preparing to shake my head “No” politely and hurry on my way, she snuck in another question, “Are you a nice person?” I caught my headshake and looked at her in disbelief. I felt betrayed, duped, made a fool of. I gasped scoldingly at her and rushed past.
In times past, I might not have seen her because I wouldn’t have made eye contact. Or I would have rushed past her but felt guilty. Her petition was surely for a worthy cause. Or I would have stopped and signed the damn thing and missed my train and been late for my movie date, disappointing my son and cheating myself.
This time I was angry. How dare you equate stopping to sign your petition with niceness! I have never been comfortable with confrontation or soliciting or saying no. I go out of my way to avoid such situations, hanging up on the telemarketer and avoiding eye contact with the street canvassers. My kids heard me say “We’re not interested” and hang up so often that my daughter once asked long ago, “Mommy, why do they keep calling? You keep telling them we’re not interesting!” I grew up with my mother sending small to medium checks to any worthy cause that asked her. I started down that same path, but have stopped. I now prefer to feel a deeper connection to fewer causes that I make a conscious decision to support, getting to know the people, the work, their goals, their outcomes. No one has more experience than me at being a nice girl and all that entails. I am striving to be an honest person who lives mindfully with integrity. You don’t know me. Shame on you.
This time I was curious. Does this strategy work? I don’t consider myself an overtly politically active person. (That would require me to be more articulate and outspoken with my beliefs and engage in disagreement. Not imminently likely. On one personality inventory test, the tester exclaimed over my results: “You are the most conflict-avoiding person I’ve ever tested!” Indeed. I come from a long line of risk-averse conflict-avoiders.) Petitions are part of our democratic process. Get enough signatures and maybe someone in Congress will grant more attention and more money toward your cause. But if those signatures are coerced, ever so sweetly by pleasant and appealing and earnest young people, do they still have weight?
Apparently, there are professional fundraising organizations, like DialogueDirect, that train people to canvass people on the street with aggressive scripting and tactics. Apparently, they achieve positive outcomes as measured by funds collected or signatures obtained. But the resulting hostility toward the organization must count for something…negative? I do admire passionate idealism and dedicated activism, since I was always too pragmatic and controlled. But I do not respect violent and intimidating methods of activism. I do respect hard work and measurable outcomes and incremental change. And I am in awe of my friends who run nonprofits and NGO’s and have mastered the technique of asking for money, face-to-face, because they believe whole-heartedly in their mission. I will happily support them over and over again. And I hope to learn from them as I feel increasing urgency to help make incremental change happen. Maybe I am not so nice. Maybe that’s a good thing.