Ours is a “Yes …, but …” culture. Every new good action or proposal is met with “Yes, that might have some value, but …” Nothing is ever good enough. The best becomes the enemy of the good. An imagined perfect is the enemy of every imperfect attempt to do some good. Lack of agreement and deadlock result. No action unifies us to move toward a positive future.
Examples abound in the media — Yes, your team had a winning season, but you did not win the championship. Yes, we could do that, but your proposal costs too much. Yes, that is a good project, but those other parts of the plan are a waste of my money. Yes, he/she has grave moral flaws or is wrongheaded, but he/she is ours. Yes, she is good now, but years ago she offended me. Each of us can add to the list. In some contexts, such back and forth is part of legitimate negotiation and mediation between individuals or groups. However, in current experience it has become open warfare along lines drawn in the sand, maintained by anger, accusations of deceit and public posturing.
Our struggles in every area of life seem to focus on win/lose results. We win; you lose. That develops from a prevailing individualism in American culture. Primary allegiance is given to me and mine. The other is the opponent, even the despised enemy. My group right or wrong, however narrowly defined.
True negotiation and mediation aim toward win/win results. Both parties win and so are able to say “Yes.” That requires some commitment to community, to shared values and a focus on we and ours.
Compromise has become a dirty word, and those who engage in it are vilified and demonized. That is certainly the stance of many politicians and leaders on both the left and the right. A national expert on leadership listened to a group of local leaders discussing challenges facing Indiana communities. He interjected this comment: “Your main problem is that you see everything in a dualistic black and white. In order to be effective leaders for positive change, you must deal with shades of gray.”
Current challenges and opportunities are so huge and complex that we must move away from the “yes …, but …” culture toward a “yes …, and …” culture. Inclusive in scope, not exclusive and narrow! Incremental steps toward the good are needed rather than holding out for perfection. Most challenges and opportunities present points on which individuals and groups are able to agree, “Yes, that is good, and we can work toward it.” Or, “Yes, this moves us toward our ultimate goal, and we can then make it a bit better.” If the human goal is more abundant life, we must find ways to produce positive outcomes in our personal and civic life. We can enhance unity and collaboration by cultivating “Yes, we can agree on these points, and we can work together to improve our community.”
Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.