Later, apparently, the line got cleaned up grammatically. Originally, in cartoonist Walt Disney's (1942 movie) "Bambi," the rabbit Thumper is advised, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all." Nowadays, Thumper's Law reads, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." And the origins of the line drift backwards into the wisps of the past. Did anyone ever really say something first?
Say something nice....
It's nice to be treated nicely and yet as an unremitting diet, anyone might know it was as phony as a three-dollar bill. Novelist William Faulkner painted tableaux of the South that included a lock-step gentility which veiled an explosive violence and unkindness. The British or Japanese politesse may camouflage the knife slipped in between your ribs, but the knife doesn't feel any better. And let's not get started on southern California, a place where, in my limited experience, people were often so damned nice that you could lose all track of any honest humanity... talk about the "Night of the Living Dead!"
And then there's nice spiritual life, all good news and group hugs, all compassion and warmth. Most people's lives are so hard that it is understandable that they seek out a little warmth and support and, well, niceness. A kiss on the lips is lovely after a lifetime of getting kicked in the ass one way or another. Zen Buddhist teachers, for example, can model themselves on Kuan Yin (the aspect of compassion) and many will flock to them. But the pivotal word is "model." And like the models on some runway of fashion, it may look great, but is anyone really that skinny or really want to get caught dead in that dress? How could anyone be beautiful if they were constantly trying to be beautiful?
Of course there is no one true way in the land between nice and not nice. Nasty sucks. But nice can suck even worse since locking a skunk in the bathroom does not mean the house won't stink anyway.
The best I can think of is honesty ... honesty and a willingness to correct the errors that crop up:
Be nice, be nasty, but be honest and refine that honesty.