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Yes, And…

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:

  1. Bill Cosby committed unspeakable acts of sexual assault, so to hell with him and all his earlier brilliant work.

  2. Big Pharma is driven by profit, making them prone to corruption, so stay away from everything they produce because it’s tainted!

  3. 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