Guy: “The audience suggestion is ‘Slingblade and Oprah on a date.'”
Liz Lemon, as Billy Bob Thornton: “I sure do like them french fried pertaters.”
Jenna Maroney: “No you don’t, Oprah!”
• • •
There’s a rule in improv: Never say no. Whatever premise your partner comes up with — whatever setting, whatever action, whatever character — you validate it and expand on it. Instead of saying “no,” you say “yes, and…” This is harder than it sounds. We’re accustomed to the idea that drama and comedy both grow out of conflict, that disagreement is the meat of communication.
Really committing to “yes, and” is terrifying. But it’s also thrilling, because a dialogue built around “yes, and” is a dialogue built on trust and on partnership. It’s a dialogue built collaboratively rather than adversarially. It’s harder to do it that way, but when it works it’s incredibly satisfying.
I wrote a piece this morning about some of the ways in which progressives have been arguing this week, and Jill Filipovic of Feministe just put up a much longer, more thoughtful post that started from a similar place. A common thread running through both of those essays is an exasperation with gotcha discourse, with what Jill describes as a culture of “calling out.”
As Jill notes, there’s a strong desire among a lot of progressives to be — and be seen as — “one of the good ones,” and calling out people who are Doing It Wrong can feel like a shortcut to that identity. There’s also, I think, something deeper acting as well. Calling people out is a model for political dialogue that we intuitively understand, one that’s validated everywhere we look, one that feeds our desire for recognition and attention. It’s also, as the improv analogue suggests, a habit of discourse that’s ingrained in all of us, and one that’s not easy to break free of even when we’re making a conscious effort. We’re addicted to the “no” in politics and our personal lives no less than in performance.
But what happens when we opt for the “yes, and” instead? What happens when we try to construct a discussion — even a discussion in a blog’s commenting space — as an act of collaboration?
We can see a glimpse of what that looks like in the comments to last night’s Feministe post on Bin Laden’s capture. People were coming from very different places on the subject, but for the most part they recognized it as a topic on which good people could disagree, and disagree passionately. There’s a lot of “but…” in the thread, a lot of “on the other hand…” a lot of “at the same time…”
What those comments show us as well, though, is how fragile that sense of community can be. The further down one gets in the thread, the more snark and calling out there is. It’s hard to keep saying “yes, and” when the people around you keep giving you “no.”
Obviously not every statement can or should be “yes, anded” anyway. Sometimes folks are so deeply ignorant or hateful that they have to be challenged aggressively. But if you compare the first half of that thread to the second half, or compare that thread to recent Feministe discussions of the royal wedding, what you see are differences that are far less about the content of the statements people are making than about the premises they are bringing to the table about who they are talking to and what the purpose of the talking is.
Jill referred to calling out as “a stand-in for actual activism” in her post this morning, and closed by suggesting that “it’s high past time we stopped thinking of call-outs and privilege-owning as the best way to do activism online.” I think she’s right, and I think there’s something important to be added, too. The work of “yes, and” — the work of communicating collaboratively, of finding and building common ground, of moving from distrust to trust — that work is real activism. It’s movement-building work, and it’s important.
“Our ultimate end,” as Dr. King once said, “must be the creation of the beloved community.”