“Just Say No”, the much-mocked anti-drug ad campaign in the ‘80s and early ‘90s spearheaded by the First Lady at the time, Nancy Reagan, has been on my mind lately. In some respects, the slogan wasn’t such a bad one; after all, it had two things going for it that a slogan should: catchiness and simplicity. But this second virtue was really a vice. The notion that people who were tempted to use drugs—particularly teenagers—would ignore their curiosity, squelch their desire, or overcome their addiction by simply saying no because they were advised to do so by a woman who seemed completely out of touch with the younger generation (even her own children) was absurd.
Besides, what’s less appealing than saying no? I much prefer yes to no. In fact, whenever I daydream of being interviewed on Inside the Actor’s Studio (I know—I’m neither an actor nor a director, and I should really get a life), I imagine that when James Lipton asks me the first question in the questionnaire invented by the now infamous Bernard Pivot, “What is your favorite word?”, I’d respond “Yes.”
Yes is positive, life-affirming, joyous, optimistic. No is, obviously, the opposite.
And yet lately, I’m in absolute awe of the power of no: a hearty, resounding, no two ways about it, NO! The sort of no best exemplified by another catchphrase, from the 1976 film classic Network: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”
This fall has been the Season of No. No to the people who’ve inflicted life-threatening fads, lies, hypocrisy, and outright sociopathic behavior on us, and no to those who support, enable, and promote them. In other words, no to bullies.
The first blow on behalf of no was struck in September at Fashion Week in Madrid where organizers banned ultra-skinny models from the catwalk, saying that they wanted to project an image of beauty and health, rather than a waif-like or heroin chic look. After calculating the models’ body mass index (BMI), the show’s organizers turned away 30 percent of would-be participants for having a dangerously low weight relative to their size, and even offered them medical treatment for eating disorders.
That’s all it took: a group of people with the guts and integrity to say no to an industry that notoriously turns a blind eye to the potential health problems of its models, including anorexia, bulimia and use of illegal substances (remember when they were shocked, shocked to discover that supermodel Kate Moss allegedly uses cocaine?). Naturally, if the industry doesn’t really care about its models, it certainly doesn’t care about their influence on young girls who are growing up in a world where size zero is vaunted as the ideal. But, finally, someone showed they care.
The next big event in the No Fest was Election Day in the US. Now, admittedly, it’s normally preferable for citizens to vote for someone or something: candidates they respect, issues they’re passionate about, feasible solutions to problems. But, this year, it was even more important to vote against politicians and policies that were so clearly out of step with what most Americans wanted and had the right to expect.
It was a cavalcade of NOs!: NO to President Bush’s incompetence and the debacle in Iraq. NO! to incumbent Republicans in Congress. NO! to incumbent Republicans in the Senate. NO! to the unethical behavior of some members of the administration and the Congress and to those who covered it up (the Abramoff scandal and Foleygate, to name two). NO! to the flagrant hypocrisy of public servants who bash gays but engage in gay sex. NO! to speaking of restoring integrity to the White House but then deceiving the nation about the reasons for going to war. NO! to accusing Democrats of being big spenders but then undoing the balanced budget achieved by President Clinton (that’s right, a Democrat), and creating the largest budget deficit in American history. I think, above all, it was a big, fat NO! to the sort of smugness and intransigence represented by Donald Rumsfeld, which is why his departure is especially sweet.
In a sense, the majority of Americans had come around to viewing those in charge of America much like, it seems, the majority of the world views America’s foreign policy: run by a bunch of bullies.
And then, emboldened perhaps by the success of this serious scolding, the public and several executives in positions of power said NO! to a book titled If I Did It by sociopath O.J. Simpson and a television interview with him (a two-part sweeps month special). Critics called for boycotts of advertisers who might sponsor the television broadcast, numerous broadcast stations announced that they’d refuse to carry the program, some television hosts, most notably Bill O’Reilly, denounced the telecast, and various bookstores said they might not stock the book or would donate net proceeds from the sales to victims of domestic violence. Finally, Rupert Murdoch, chairman of the News Corporation, which owns both the Fox network and ReganBooks, an imprint of HarperCollins, yanked what he termed an “ill-considered project.” Following this announcement, HarperCollins recalled the books that had already been shipped.
What’s more thrilling than standing up to a bully and forcing him or her to back down? It’s the stuff that heroes and heroines throughout the ages have been made of. It’s one of the most beloved storylines in everything from the Bible to Greek mythology to popular literature to the movies—and even to current television programs (think of the O.C.‘s Ryan vs. Luke, or Trey or Volchok, or any number of bullies). So hurray for us for finally finding our voice, for being our own heroes!
But, what on earth took us so long? Bullies cannot exist without victims. Psychologists say that most targets of childhood bullying share certain characteristics: they are sensitive, cautious, and quiet; they withdraw from confrontations; and, perhaps most telling, they are submissive and easily acquiesce to the demands of those bullying them.
Imagine where Americans would be (or wouldn’t be) now, if we hadn’t acquiesced to bullying behavior for so long. If adults had refused from the get-go to buy into the less (weight)-is-more philosophy of fashion, maybe there’d be fewer adolescents dealing with eating disorders; if we’d insisted on proof of WMDs when Colin Powell and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld first claimed they existed, maybe our servicemen and women wouldn’t be in Iraq; and if the police had taken Nicole Brown Simpson’s battering at the hands of O.J. seriously from the start, maybe she and Ron Goldman would still be alive.
So, perhaps Mrs. Reagan was onto something, after all. Sometimes the most positive thing we can do is to just say NO!