The Power of No

If you watched the Masters this weekend, what didn’t you hear?

The Masters is “a tradition unlike any other.” You don’t for instance hear boisterous fans bellow You da man!!! after a golfer hits a tee shot. Augusta National is an example of prohibitions playing a part in creating unique cultures. It’s worth a closer look, since much of the Western world regards prohibitions as judgmental.

This year I enjoyed the Masters up close and personal – at least the Tuesday Practice Round. A friend and I walked the hallowed grounds of Augusta National for nine hours. We met hundreds of workers who were unfailingly courteous. The restrooms were spotless. The food was inexpensive ($1.50 for an egg salad sandwich). There was no trash. I saw only three cigarette butts on the ground (impressive, as smokers assume the world is their ashtray). This kind of decorum demarcates the Masters from other tournaments. It dates from the founder, Bobby Jones.

In 1934, Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts decided to hold a gentlemanly golf tournament. The point was to create a first-class player experience on a first-class course while showing the player guests “every courtesy possible.” Roberts proposed calling the annual invitational the Masters Tournament. Jones objected, thinking the title was presumptuous. The name Augusta National Invitational Tournament was used for five years until 1939 when Jones relented and the name was officially changed. What didn’t change was the culture. Fans continue to be called “patrons,” commercialization is limited, and the decorum is shaped by Augusta’s many prohibitions.

Cell phones for example are prohibited, as are bags, backpacks, beepers, beverage containers, coolers, periscopes, strollers, and cameras (cameras are only allowed on Practice Rounds days). There is no lying down on the lawn. You can’t take off your shoes. And you won’t see Gary McCord broadcasting the tournament. During the 1994 Masters, McCord joked that tournament officials “don’t cut the greens here at Augusta, they use bikini wax.” McCord’s zinger was deemed to be indecorous. Masters officials prohibited him from ever again broadcasting the tournament.

Prohibitions might prove beneficial for golf, but many Americans and Western Europeans believe they have no place with God and religion. They assume religion doesn’t deal with reality, so when religious people pronounce prohibitions – “Thou shalt not” – they are castigated as judgmental.1 In other words, it’s fine to judge a banana mushy. But if you judge someone’s beliefs as mushy, you’re out of bounds. We’re slouching into a sloth of “niceness” where religious prohibitions are considered judgmental. They are being replaced by “a set of mushy injunctions to be nice,” writes Charles Murray in Coming Apart. “Call it the code of ecumenical niceness.”2

There is now so much mush that few Americans and Western Europeans recall “nice” means “silly” or “stupid.” Niceness yields stupid people. They spout silly things, like the virtue of nonjudgmentalism. This is one of the more prominent – and baffling – features of America’s new-upper-class culture writes Murray. He notes for example how young upper-class women hardly ever have babies out of wedlock. They recognize nonmarital births produce boatloads of problems. Yet these same women find it “impermissible to use a derogatory label for nonmarital births” by middle- and lower-class women.3 The code of niceness creates a culture of stupidity: Who are we to judge?

The best statesmen and business leaders don’t suffer this stupidity. Because they deal with reality, they know cultures are defined by boundaries – saying “No.” Prohibitions make cultures strong. That’s why Winston Churchill liked Alexander the Great’s assessment “that the peoples of Asia were slaves, because they had not learned to pronounce the word ‘No!’” It works the same way in business. The strength of a company’s culture is defined by whether leaders say “No!” to top-revenue producers who only pay lip service to the company’s purpose. There is power in saying “No!”

The problem in America and Western Europe is that ecumenical niceness is beginning to even include golf. In 2003, Martha Burk, head of the National Council of Women’s Organization, demanded that Augusta National include female members. She judged the prohibition to be sexist. Augusta’s President, Hootie Johnson, politely replied, “No.” He said Augusta would invite a woman on its own timetable, “and not at the point of a bayonet.” The club had its reasons for prohibiting women and they weren’t sexist. Augusta National’s prohibitions played an essential part in the club’s decorum.

In 1967, Bobby Jones summed up this decorum. It’s reprinted in the Masters program every year. “In golf, customs of etiquette and decorum are just as important as rules governing play. It is appropriate for spectators to applaud successful strokes in proportion to difficulty but excessive demonstrations by a player or his partisans are not proper because of the possible effect upon other competitors. Most distressing to those who love the game of golf is the applauding or cheering of misplays or misfortunes of a player. Such occurrences have been rare at the Masters but we must eliminate them entirely if our patrons are to continue to merit their reputation as the most knowledgeable and considerate in the world.”

I felt firsthand the power of this decorum on Tuesday at the Practice Facility. We were sitting in the stands enjoying lunch. After finishing my chicken wrap, I began to toss the wrapper under my seat – but stopped. No, I thought, this is the Masters. I held my wrapper until I found a trashcan. The culture of prohibitions worked. It explains why you don’t hear You da man!!! at the Masters. Do so – and you are gone. The alternative is having fewer prohibitions, but that would likely means the Masters culture goes away. And then it wouldn’t be “a tradition unlike any other.”

__________________
1 Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006)
2 Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2012), p. 288.
3 Murray, Coming Apart, p. 289.

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4 Comments

  1. That may be why negative virtues like tolerance are considered supreme in our society instead of positive ones like love. C.S. Lewis got it right in “The Weight of Glory” when he said that Christian virtues appeal to the cultivation of our deepest desires, not the absence of them. Loving others and truly seeking after our deepest joy involves many “prohibitions.”

    Great post! I do have a question though, Mike.

    When churches petition the government to say, “No!” to issues like same-sex marriage, does that work for or against religious liberty? Is asking the government to define marriage through prohibitions the best way to see faith and culture flourish?

  2. Charles Murray’s point is that America’s new upper class women generally believe it is bad behavior (poor decorum) to have babies out of wedlock. It is not part of a flourishing society. Yet they feel it is also poor decorum to suggest to other women, those having babies out of wedlock, that this is not part of a flourishing society.

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