Teddy Roosevelt's daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth once quipped, "If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me." It's not really that I have a taste for mean gossip, but a certain kind of niceness rubs me the wrong way--and I find a certain kind of meanness wildly entertaining. To be "mean," after all, really only means to be "common, public, general, universal, shared by all." "Nice," however, once meant "foolish, stupid, senseless"--I cite the Online Etymology Dictionary on this point--derived from the Latin prefix ne-, meaning "not," and the root scire, meaning "to know." Of course, that definition is about 700 years old. Since its origin, "nice" has come to mean "timid," then "fussy, fastidious," then "dainty, delicate," then "precise, careful," then "agreeable, delightful," and now "kind, thoughtful." Still, its roots do show through, since, in even current usage, the word often means to pretend not to know, or to ignore. I would add that "nice" now suggests a certain class superiority--the modern form of gentility (with the full force of "Gentile" in effect here, too), whereas "mean" denotes the merely common--riffraff.
Ricky Gervais' patter at this year's Golden Globe Awards was widely panned as "mean" spirited (and widely praised by others as hilarious). What I caught of it online was funny, poisonously funny in the manner of Groucho Marx, W.C. Fields, and Mark Twain. Americans used to be good at this kind of roughhouse humor, holding nothing back, body-slamming hypocrisy and pretension left and right. Meanness in the service of truth, justice, and equality is, I think, rather a good thing. In front of the emperors who had gathered together at the Beverly Hilton Hotel to pat themselves on the back, Gervais pointed out that they wore no clothes. This is mean, of course, and it is also satire with its moral force intact. That such honesty is scathing--that it hurts--is of course what bothers so many people about it, especially when the people getting roasted are "of the better sort." However, insulting whole classes of people--mainly the working poor--is not only acceptable, but also politically shrewd. Few Americans seem to mind attacks on labor unions, welfare moms, or nutjobs who break from the pack to criticize the high, the mighty, and the legally incorporated.
We have been assured that tomorrow night's Oscars broadcast will be meanness-free. James Franco and Anne Hathaway will be as well-scrubbed and nice as they can be. Franco told the Hollywood Reporter that Gervais had submitted some material for the Oscars, but it was rejected. Franco said, "He did his award show and he bombed. Why is he trying to get in on ours?" He further stated that, as someone who was in the audience at Gervais' Golden Globes performance, he found it "not funny"--or perhaps just not the laugh riot the Globes show was in 2009, when Glenn Close and Jake Gyllenhaal co-hosted.
We should keep in mind that all social reformers have been criticized as "mean" and that, despite their murderous tendencies, HAL the computer and Hannibal Lecter are as "nice" as nice can be. Niceness is a social quality, not an ethical one. Our objections to someone who refuses to behave nicely are much like our objections to someone who fails to dress appropriately for an event. This delicacy wouldn't be so bad if we as a modern people, in an age of political correctness and compassionate conservatism, were not so blithely tolerant of the arrogance of the powerful, the burdens crushing the poor and the sick, and the thousands of deaths that are the "collateral damage" of our "peacekeeping" efforts abroad.
We have the Brits to thank for keeping meanness in satire alive. Of course, they have a tradition--Swift, Pope, Wilde, and Sasha Baron Cohen. In America, we still have the Jews--Jon Stewart, Larry David, and Sarah Silverman--to keep us grounded with their knowing but often indelicate jabs at our pretensions and petty cruelties, to which we may prefer to turn a blind eye--but then the Jews do lack the "kinder and gentler" airs of us Gentiles.