Talking past each other now commonplace

In improvisational comedy there’s something known as the rule of “yes, and.” When one performer makes a statement or introduces an idea, her fellow performers accept it and expand on it. They say “yes, and” rather than “no, but.”

This tenet came to mind as I stood among the throngs at the 2018 Women’s March. After a week of breathless social media #MeToo fury about generational divides in feminism, it was almost surprising to see women and girls of all ages united for a single cause — opposing the Trump presidency — and getting along just great.

There were myriad sub-causes, of course. Just about everyone came carrying the banner of her particular affiliation: immigrants’ rights, racial justice, equal pay and so on. In the wretched reaches of Twitter, many of the marchers would be fighting over whose cause was most pressing or whose grievance was most grievous. But on the streets, at least for a day, the optics were clear: We all want to get to the same place even if we can’t agree what route is best.

Still, the phenomenon of natural allies talking past each other and turning minor disagreements into deal breakers has become one of the baseline dynamics of big cultural conversations. After the Women’s March, I happened to see the latest installment of “Real Time With Bill Maher,” where an exchange made me so exasperated I haven’t stopped thinking about it.

Maher’s guests were political columnist Andrew Sullivan, actor/comedian Larry Wilmore and Saru Jayaraman, a lawyer, UC Berkeley professor and fair-wage advocate for restaurant workers. All three were tremendously likable and telegenic. And all three were basically in agreement on the broad strokes of the conversation: President Trump is a danger and an embarrassment, the republic is in peril, we need to find a way out of this mess, etc.

Because Jayaraman’s focus is on increasing the minimum wage for restaurant workers, she talked about tips, and the ways that workers — especially women — who are reliant on the kindness of customers are especially vulnerable to abuses of power on the job. When Sullivan asked Jayaraman why so many of the women she represents voted for Trump, Jayaraman replied that they saw him as an anti-establishment figure but that many were now saying they were disappointed in him.

Sullivan then threw a wrench in the cozy liberal gabfest by saying that the last year had shown “the strongest gains for working-class wages in the country in 20 years.”

“That’s because of Obama,” Jayaraman said, with an expression that essentially telegraphed duh, dude! Maher made approving noises. The audience cheered wildly. As far as the optics of the moment went, it was game, set, match Jayaraman.

But optics were part of what Sullivan was talking about. He knew the economic recovery overall, such as it is, was put in motion under President Obama. He was indicating that voters were “dumb enough” to give Trump the credit for it. Instead of responding with a “yes, and,” Jayaraman refused to engage Sullivan on the level he was operating on, even though it would have only required following a line of reasoning that was slightly — and really only just slightly — more complicated than what you might find in a tweet.

Sullivan, a gay Catholic who hates Trump and loved Obama but still calls himself a conservative, is an interesting case. Though he fell out with the right more than a decade ago, he’s lately become a pariah of the left. His columns for New York magazine are the kind I tend to like the most: thought experiments more than polemics. He throws his ideas around in the manner of a showy pizza maker tossing dough, knowing some will fall flat, but, hey, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? This approach gets him reliably pilloried on social media as some kind of reactionary troll (I believe “garbage person” is the clinical Twitter term), but it also makes him one of the few public thinkers who seems to place more value in thinking than in necessarily being right.

The problem with being right, or at least aiming for rightness above all, is that it requires the kind of tunnel vision that can sometimes ruin the view. Being right mostly means that some people agree with you and others are sure you’re dismally wrong. And while that may be the road to clicks and likes and the carving out of an easily classifiable public persona, it’s not a very honest approach to looking at the world, since most of us exist in a perpetual state of maddening internal conflict.

In other words, we’re all just improvising here. Which is maybe why we should try to err on the side of “yes, ands” and reserve the “no, buts” for when we really need them.

By Meghan Daum

Contributing Columnist

Meghan Daum is a contributing writer to Los Angeles Times Opinion.