The toddler is strapped into her high chair, an applesauce airplane approaching for a landing. The hangar remains open until the final moment, when it snaps shut, accompanied by a violent shake. The wreckage strewn about the kitchen lays waste to Daddy’s intentions to feed his newly headstrong daughter. It is her first act of agency, but gratefully not her last. Violet has learned the power of “No.”
We are frequently pulled in the direction of “Yes.” It is a word which is meant to unlock opportunities and experiences, which puts us in the good graces of our teachers and superiors, which is the foundation of old-fashioned grit and industry. The word carries the connotation of positivity, of optimism, of openness. “Yes” is the mantra of a happy, uncomplicated world. It is the foundation of some of humanity’s greatest triumphs, where the sheer force of will overcame staggering odds.
But “Yes” is often a response of acquiescence, not volition. It is the only answer to a drill sergeant’s command. It is what a girl feels that she has to say to her boyfriend when he pressures her to have sex. It is what a young lawyer must say when the older partner tells him to lose that crucial piece of evidence. The word escaped millions of lips when their owners were asked to come quietly and not make a fuss.
“Yes” is a word that can be driven by guilt, by fear, by lack of confidence, by a confluence of these and many more dark emotions. History’s most gruesome monsters were surrounded by a cavalcade of “Yes” men, feeding the beast with that linguistic narcotic. It is a word that frequently sounds hollow as it is filled not with granite strength but with the emptiness of trepidation and doubt.
It is when our instinct towards “No” is overrun by a societal expectation of “Yes” that conflicts often arise. If a contractor comes out to a home and bids on a project, a homeowner might feel beholden to commit to the undertaking even though there are many red flags whipping loud “No”s in the breeze. Business partners that began as friends have great incentives to say “Yes” to protect a friendship, when a simple “No” would have saved both the relationship and the company.
Attorneys are important gatekeepers of the legal system. Greed and ego often push them to say “Yes” to representation of clients whose cases are, if not outright frivolous, at least considerably ill-advised. Yet there is great honor and responsibility in declining to take on a matter when either objective or subjective factors point to “No.” Lucre is never worth the headache and heartburn of being on the wrong side of one’s conscience.
The power of “No” comes not from stubborn intransigence, but rather from reasoned opposition. Once children understand the inverted power dynamics inherent in their refusal, they tend to take it too far. That is fine for a three-year-old and much less so for a man of seventy who might use obstructionism for his own nefarious purposes.
“No” is the catalyst and the battle-cry for the burgeoning movements to combat misogyny, bullying, homophobia, transphobia, income inequality, environmental degradation, and the litany of other behaviors that have plagued our society for far too long. Though negative by definition, there is not a more positive force vibrant in our culture today. Only by pursuing these lines of “No” will we ever be able to get to “Yes.”