At the height of the 2020 BLM protests, I commented on a thread in an Italian-American Facebook group that sparked fury. Statues of Christopher Columbus had been vandalized across the country, naturally upsetting many Italo-American communities. I expressed an understanding of the anger that Black and Indigenous people were experiencing, citing generations of deep suffering since Columbus’ arrival. What ensued was a string of reactionary comments about how Italians suffered prejudice after they immigrated; how not all people of color have it bad (so how dare I insinuate racial discrimination was baked into our culture); and other defensive, self-righteous rebukes. It seemed I was a traitor to my ethnic tribe because I expressed empathy for other ethnic groups. Ouch.
I see this experience as part of a disturbing trend in which there’s a lack of effort to hold two truths, fueling toxic vitriol that continues to seep into our society. For me (and many of us), this begs the question: How do we get past the frustrating impasse of Either/Or and instead begin to embrace a more productive Yes, And?
“Yes, Mr. Italian-American Facebooker, you and your ancestors worked plenty hard to survive, even thrive—AND descendants of slaves and Indigenous people have suffered horribly as a result of European settlement in what is now called the United States.” It’s a Yes, And. One idea does not exclude the other.
“Yes, And” – The Cornerstone of Improv
In the world of improvisational theater, there’s a simple overarching rule: When one actor improvises a line, the others don’t contradict it. Rather, they listen and build on it. The scene evolves from there:
Actor A: Sorry, we’re late. A flying saucer landed and caused a traffic jam.
Actor B will shut down the scene if they reply with: No it didn’t. There’s no such thing as flying saucers!
Instead, they accept what Actor A has offered and move the scene forward: Oh wow, did the aliens get a ticket?
The story can then progress in unexpected, cooperative (and often entertaining) ways.
While an improv show is hardly identical to a politically-tinged conversation on social media or elsewhere, it would serve us well to adopt the Yes, And approach from the improv playbook. Shakespeare knew what he was talking about: We humans are one giant ensemble cast *and* life is one ongoing improvisation.
Using the Yes, And Rule to Clean Up Our Divisive Act
Yet somehow we’ve morphed into a species of “push me/pull you” creatures, who are caught up in an endless game of opposites. This binary Either/Or world means we also lose our ability to discern (and learn from) the multifaceted complexities of “truth”. We bind ourselves to one aspect of an idea and refuse to recognize the multidimensional nature of our world. It’s become accepted, even expected, to cancel those whose flaws are revealed. Or worse, to reject substantive information because it doesn’t align with our political beliefs. For example:
- Bill Cosby committed unspeakable acts of sexual assault, so to hell with him and all his earlier brilliant work.
- Big Pharma is driven by profit, making them prone to corruption, so stay away from everything they produce because it’s tainted!
- Christopher Columbus initiated European settlement in the “New World”, which is the cause of all the racism in our country, so erase him! OR, the opposite extreme: Christopher Columbus gave my ancestors a “land of opportunity”, so forever honor him!
It’s so easy—and sometimes feels righteously delicious—to take a stand with an Either/Or. But embracing Yes, And forces us to acknowledge uncomfortable opposition and even hold space for forgiveness so we can move forward. When our instinct or habit is to amputate part of the truth and bury it, honoring the Yes, And of a situation can feel next to impossible. This is exactly where the creative skill of improv comes into play:
- Bill Cosby committed unspeakable acts he should not get away with, AND his 1980s TV series was groundbreaking. Maybe we set up a system where an audience could still enjoy his work, perhaps re-edited, in which all episodes aired would have a disclaimer announcing that the revenue goes to aiding and/or preventing victims of sexual assault.
- Big Pharma is driven by profit, which makes them ripe for corruption, AND medicines and vaccines save lives every day. Let’s shift toward cooperative research and open patents so that even more people could benefit from medicine stemming from quality research.
- Christopher Columbus opened a new gateway for Europeans, AND the system created by said Europeans in the Americas was exploitative and traumatic to Indigenous and African peoples. How about we challenge a diverse group of artists—descendants of slaves, Indigenous and immigrants—to reinterpret what a statue of Christopher Columbus might express, and put older statues in museums that educate those who visit.
Improvisational Yes, And thinking looks easier than it often is on stage, and my think-on-your-feet idea examples above are easier said than done. But one way or another, I believe we have to challenge the simplistic, divisive mindset that’s taking over our society. We can push ourselves to re-see complicated situations through the eyes of broader wisdom and multiple perspectives. With a bit of creative effort, we can rise above the division with constructive, forward-thinking responses. And when we project our Yes, And ideas with resounding intention, they will start to catch on.
What are some Either/Or situations that you wrestle with, and how can you pull them toward a creative Yes, And? If we each start asking ourselves this question and begin to follow the Yes, And improv rule, we’ll become active participants in an ensemble cast that’s driving a story of progress—instead of waiting for someone else to write the script.
A version of this post was originally published on Medium.
In keeping with my desire to support well-rated nonprofits that help people become better, Rehearsal for Life stood out as a perfect thematic fit to this month’s post. Using theater as a vehicle for social change, Rehearsal for Life empowers young people to develop valuable social and emotional skills through improv and performance. Consider joining me in making a donation or supporting a similar group in your community.