Just Say 'No'

In a world in which terms like common sense too often serve as covers for coercion, the power of no is underappreciated.


No is an underrated word. When properly deployed, it has the potential to bring many extended and pointless conversations to an end. Conversations, for instance, over the merits of restrictions or policies that you would never obey in a thousand lifetimes.

But that means it must be a definitive no, not an ambiguous French non.

"Answering 'non' gives you the option to say 'oui' later," explains the comedian Olivier Giraud about his countrymen's often squishy refusals.

An ambiguous non isn't a line in the sand; it's a bargaining position for a better offer or a more generous bribe. That's not the sort of no we're discussing here. We're talking about a hard no that offers a clear border defining the limits of what you're willing to tolerate, beyond which you'll resist by every means at your disposal.

When you're invoking this sort of no, you shouldn't get bogged down in debates over terminology, or effectiveness, or constitutional interpretations.

"The definition of what you want to ban is incoherent. You need to refine…."

"What does the research show about…?"

"Your take on the amendment ignores the long history of…."

When the stakes are high and you're dealing with a non-negotiable matter of principle, what do you care about the opinions of social scientists, legal scholars, or expert nitpickers? You've already decided that compliance with this latest bit of presumptuous stupidity is out of the question. You're not going to obey it, even if it makes it through the legislative or administrative process and even if it survives judicial review. Moreover, you plan to throw sand into the gears of the machinery of enforcement. Say so!

That no can be a matter of individual resolve, committing yourself to a course of refusal and noncompliance, or it can be a collective statement, which has the potential to magnify its clout. It might be a bit of both when great minds—or at least shared values—come together.

Canadian gun owners were largely on the same page when they refused to cooperate with their government's effort starting in 1998 to register every long gun in the country. Officials spent years nagging recalcitrant citizens to fill out the required paperwork, even as the cost of the new bureaucracy—following the tradition of government expenditures worldwide—soared past original estimates of C$2 million to exceed C$1 billion by 2005, according to the government itself. In 2012, the registry was abolished amid questions as to why regulators were spending so much just to be ignored.

Joining with their Orthodox Jewish counterparts in 2018, New York Catholic leaders ordered their schools "not to participate in any review carried out by local public school officials" in response to a state scheme to give public school boards approval power over the curricula of the private schools with which they compete. As independent institutions boycotted the review process, they also battled regulators in court. This pushed the earliest possible implementation of the plan back to 2023. At which time—if they hold firm—their unified no will continue to frustrate meddling state officials.

From the New York example, we see that a line in the sand need not be an exclusive tactic. It's possible to refuse to compromise or conform while also fighting on other fronts. This not only increases the likelihood of victory in the battle of wills but demonstrates to your opponents that scoring political and legal points will do nothing more than deliver them back to your original obstinate refusal to give them what they want.

Of course, there are many times when discussion and compromise should take precedence over saying no. Not every disagreement is a matter of fundamental principle. Some debates should hold out the possibility of meeting partway and splitting the difference. As a result, there are times when terminology, research, and interpretation do matter and should be subject to rigorous examination.

But in a world in which terms like common sense too often serve as covers for coercion and in which compromise is frequently a stand-in for slow-motion surrender, the power of no is underappreciated and underused. It's a statement that not only are you unwilling to give your opponents a nibble of what they want so they can come back for more later—you're prepared to extract a price from them if they continue their efforts.

So think it through and decide when and where your principles really matter. Then lay aside the phony arguments: Just say "no."