Say Yes, Say No | №9

Say Yes, Say No | №9

We need to say ‘no’ more often.

Our culture is a culture of yes. In fact, I would argue that our nature (given that we are social beings) is a nature of yes. My trial advocacy professor teaches us to build agreement. In a courtroom, especially in cross, a yes is harmonic; even the jury and the judge find themselves nodding along.

Most countries that derive their legal system from the English model (that is, the common law countries including the US, Canada, Australia and the commonwealth countries) function on an adversarial system, as opposed to an inquisitorial system. In an inquisitorial system, the judge is actively involved in the courtroom proceedings; the courtroom is a public inquisition where the judge investigates the facts, can question witnesses and interrogate suspects. An adversarial system gives the floor to the lawyers. The judge is an impartial referee, a trier of fact and law, not an investigator with leave to ask the questions. Cross-examination is the pillar of the adversarial system. It is in the crucible of a cross-examination that the Truth wills out. In cross, the opposing lawyer grills contrary witnesses – this is the part of a trial that you read about, see in movies and TV shows.

When my trial advocacy professor preens us to be suave lawyers a-la-Matthew Mcconaughey in the Lincoln Lawyer, he trains us to carry out a cross by asking fast, increasingly shorter and more focused questions. The trick: to trap your witness into admitting the “Truth” (which I put in quotations, because really, the truth here is not capitalized Truth, but rather the truth as it fits into your side’s theory of the case). And what answers do you want from the witness? Yes. You could have them answer ‘no’ towards the same end, but a trial is a human process. You want a string of yeses all the way to your inevitable conclusion.

Yes is hypnotic. Yes lulls the witness into complacency and a false sense of security (after all, you are agreeing), and sooner than you can say “you can’t handle the truth”, you have them agreeing to murder most foul (if we are to be dramatic).

From a practical standpoint, we prefer to say ‘yes’. We want to agree, to please those around us.

Why do we like ‘yes’?

Because a yes is accord. We are social creatures imbued with strong individual personalities. This means that though we are programmed to live in groups, the formation and harmony of these groups depends on accommodation to affiliating with a union of ideas. We cannot have a social contract if we haven’t said yes. Yes is the brick and mortar of coexistence.

We like ‘yes’ because a yes is not a no. A no is combative, aggressive, discordant. A no in courtroom is jarring. We have an adversarial system, but we seek one ultimate Truth. A witness saying ‘no’ is a witness fighting back against the opposing lawyer. This introduces an element of doubt in the judge and jury – why is the witness saying ‘no’? Is it possible that the witness’s story, not the lawyer’s theory, is the Truth?

Back to our original thesis: we need to say ‘no’.

Saying ‘no’ is dangerous. A no breeds dissent; it is the genesis of something which has not been said. Generally, a yes makes people happy, a no introduces debate. There are other synonyms to describe yes that put this into perspective: a yes is concession, accommodation, concordance, accession. A yes does not introduce anything new – it is an agreement to comply with that which has been stated. Granted, you can say yes to a revolution. But that revolution would not be your revolution; that revolution belongs to the person you are saying yes to.

A no is the individual deciding that they do not agree. And if they do not agree, they do so because they have a different theory, a different idea, a different opinion.

No is cogito ergo sum.

I am not seeking to romanticize or generalize. We are a culture of yes by necessity: despite all that we groan about loss of genuine human interaction, ours is an ever more connected world that includes more and more different people into the social group (i.e., we are not several dispersed social groups – we are increasingly a webbed network of one global social group). If we are to govern and coexist in a populated and heterogeneous world, there has to be a great deal of conformity. But this group search for unanimity cannot bury the self-actualizing power of the ‘no’.

We need to say no because we need to be individuals. We need to create ideas, not just agree with them. We need to form our own opinions and not just adhere to a default standard-form model of who we could be. We need to think for ourselves and reach our own conclusions. Society requires agreement, but progress requires dissent.

En bref, say yes because you’re human…but say no because you are.


 keywords: adversarial system, cross-examination, social agreement, self-actualization
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