A reflection on the Presidential Election of 2016
By Jonathan P. Rossing
Chair, Department of Communications
During the 2016 Vice Presidential Debate, one candidate prefaced a response to the other with the disclaimer, “at the risk of agreeing with you.” Risk? Political agreement should not be risky. Cooperation and alignment should not be something for which a candidate apologizes, nor something that citizens would denounce. How has the process of political cooperation and consensus come to be seen as something about which candidates must offer cautious disclaimers? How have we come to see ourselves as such a divided people among whom the possibility of agreement is unfathomable?
As a communication studies professor, I help students recognize how language and symbols have the power to shape our attitudes and beliefs. This understanding of communication calls us to pay close attention to our language choices and how they contribute to conditions such as our supposed political polarization. A quick scan of headlines and news stories reveals how frequently we talk about each other as enemies and present our adversaries as villains leading the country toward the disaster and destruction. Political imagery reinforces this no-holds barred, death match; the image of an elephant and a donkey, both bloodied and bruised, pummeling each other with boxing gloves is familiar and widespread. With such messages, it’s no wonder that political agreement becomes a risky move, or that the comments section for any political news story displays the ugliest dimensions of our national character.
However, to recognize communication’s power to shape attitudes and influence behavior is also to understand our power to change those attitudes through new language choices that subtly steer us toward different attitudes, beliefs and actions. For me, the language of improvisational theater provides compelling alternatives to the current status quo.
Yes does not mean whole-hearted agreement; instead it signals one’s willingness to honor an idea, to give it space to be heard.
Improvisation is an “ensemble” art: everyone must work together and support one another on stage in order to create a moving story or comical tale without scripts, props or predetermined characters. Trust is a central feature of an ensemble. One way improvisers build trust is by following the mandate to “make your scene partner look good.” No one tries to steal the show; instead every actor makes choices about what to do and say based on how it will set up the other actors to succeed. Furthermore, improvisers build trust and help one another succeed through a principle that has recently gained popularity in professional and educational settings: “Yes, and.” “Yes” calls all actors to accept whatever another actor contributes to the scene — a line, a gesture, an emotion. “And” calls all actors to take responsibility for making their own contribution in a way that builds on the previous offers rather than rejecting them.
Applied to the world of politics these language choices have the power to shift how we think about the people who currently appear as political “foes.” If we talked about our nation and our communities as “ensembles,” we might see beyond our own interests and live up to the calling to be people for and with others who work together for everyone’s good. If we commit to a “Yes and” ethic, we might start to discover ways to build consensus and to cooperate rather than simply standing toe-to-toe shouting “No!” It may challenge us to say “Yes” in moments of intense disagreement where we’ve been trained to see nothing but an impasse. Yes does not mean whole-hearted agreement; instead it signals one’s willingness to honor an idea, to give it space to be heard. “And” signals a commitment to add something new that builds on the previous idea. It doesn’t mean we forfeit all our needs and values, but it calls us to the challenging work of respectful cooperation, collaboration and listening.
We’ve grown accustomed to the story of a fragile country on the verge of social and political catastrophe unless one’s favored party or politician becomes the star of the show. A more hopeful story recognizes that we improvise our way forward together every day as we face unexpected challenges and changes. Instead of a future where a nation of adversaries battle for the spotlight, I favor a future in which an ensemble of citizens supports each other through change.