Ken Stiles

We Utahns pride ourselves on being nice. We especially like it when others notice that we do good works, like donating to charities, providing service, and generally treating each other with politeness and kindness.

We take special pride in taking care of our families and our immediate neighbors. We hold gatherings, celebrate traditions and lend a helping hand in a crisis — such as chopping fallen trees in the aftermath of a recent storm. We also send our dollars and our grandparents and our firefighters to places in need that are far away.

This is all truly remarkable and deserves to be praised. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. Recent events have highlighted an odd feature of Utah niceness. We seem to be able to make an exception where people across town are concerned — particularly if we feel the folks over there might pose a threat. I’m referring to a tendency to carve out segments of our towns and communities that we feel are not entitled to our niceness because it’s too inconvenient or the people are not deserving.

Consider mask-wearing, for example. Sense and common sense are unanimous is showing how much this will help prevent our neighbors — broadly defined — from contracting a deadly disease. But we’re pretty bad at it. We were in 44th place when it came to the percentage of people wearing masks per state at the height of the pandemic. And we’ve even been rather snippy about it. We made national news with anti-mask protests in Provo and Orem. Meanwhile, students at BYU and UVU are attending off-campus dance parties and church activities where social distancing and mask wearing are often ignored.

All of this has contributed to Utah County still having very high rates of COVID-19 infection. Utah County is ahead of Salt Lake County, despite having half as many people. Since Sept. 1, more than 10,000 people have been newly diagnosed. Contract tracers are overwhelmed, and so the spread is likely to continue unchecked. More than 60 people have died in Utah County since March. At the current pace, we can anticipate that an additional 40 people will die by the end of the year. This is not nice.

Consider target shooting with incendiary rounds and careless campfire maintenance. Several fires have forced people out of their homes in recent weeks when some sportsmen decided to use their weapons in the woods and accidentally — but predictably — started massive fires that forced the evacuation of hundreds of their fellow citizens (myself and my wife included). Likewise, some campers (probably otherwise very nice) have walked away from countless campfires, many of which have sparked forest fires that have destroyed thousands of acres of beautiful trees and animal habitats. This isn’t nice.

Don’t get me wrong. All of the people who did these things are almost certainly very nice. They are good neighbors and do many charitable things. The problem is not a lack of niceness. It’s a lack of civic-mindedness. It’s that mid-level stage of niceness. It goes beyond how we treat people we see on a regular basis — family members, neighbors, co-workers, even cashiers at the local grocery. Much of that kind of niceness is self-serving, since failure to be nice to these people may come back to haunt us. Even the Good Book points out that “if ye love them which love you, what thanks have ye? For sinners also love those that love them.”

No, civic-mindedness is much harder. It involves sacrificing comfort and convenience — and even money — for the sake of people with whom we merely share a ZIP code. It’s inconvenient and even often annoying. It means giving things to people you may not think are deserving or who you will never meet. It often requires ongoing sacrifice. It’s about being a Good Samaritan all the time.

It means paying higher property taxes so kids from across town can go to good schools — including the children of undocumented immigrants who you might think shouldn’t be here in the first place.

It means wearing a mask to protect old people you don’t know and will never meet who live in facilities you will never visit.

It means turning off your engine and putting up with being too hot or too cold while waiting in a parking lot so you don’t add to our air pollution.

It means skipping out on some fun but dangerous activities that might start a fire or cause a landside.

It means never telling a racist joke to even your closest friends or making fun of people’s sexual orientation behind their backs.

It means acknowledging that the guy you voted against still loves our country.

It’s next-level niceness.

We could use more of it.

Ken Stiles is a political science professor at BYU.