Code / August 2017

The Art of Saying 'No'

Saying ‘no’ is ultimately an expression of freedom, but also of power. The Rake explores the men who mastered the art.

Muhammad Ali surrounded by the press after he refused to fight in the Vietnam War, circa 1967.

Bob Dylan gave no convincing reason. He hadn’t even responded to calls for a fortnight. So when he finally gave the Nobel Committee a firm ‘no’ to the question of whether he would be collecting one of the world’s most prestigious prizes, it caused something of an angry debate. On the one side, there were those who considered him the ungrateful adolescent; on the other, those who saw him as the rebel, going his own way, sticking it to the Man.

Saying no isn’t easy. We thrive on community cohesion. Having experienced it ourselves, we feel empathy with those to whom it is said; being said no to has been proven to cause genuine psychological damage. Small wonder then that saying no typically happens only privately, quietly, couched in obfuscation of the fact of the matter. The French get it. They refer to ‘je refuse’ - what strikes them as the right not to do something. It’s a right the French president Francois Hollande invoked in 2014 when asked point blank in an interview if he had had an affair, a question that would have been answered with prevarication by a politician of any other nation.

Perhaps this is because saying no is, ultimately, an expression of freedom, but also of power. “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything,” as Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest men, has it. “The art of leadership is saying no,” as Tony Blair, previous British prime minister and three time general election winner, had it. But this is not to say there is no cost to what can, on the surface, look to be merely linguistic rebellion. Some have seen putting their careers on the line as the acceptable price of outspokenness. Marlon Brando may be the best known of actors to have said no thanks to his Oscar win - In 1973 he sent a Native Indian representative in his stead and, to a chorus of boos from the audience, issued a statement about the misrepresentation of the United States’ indigenous peoples in the movies. Yet he was not the first.

Two years prior, George C. Scott shunned the Hollywood establishment - which has made countless millions out of stories of the lone rebel - not once but twice, first by rejecting his ‘Best Actor’ nomination for Patton, then by turning down the award when he won it anyway. The Oscars ceremony was, he said, in no uncertain terms, “a two hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons. The crying actor clutching the statue to his bosom - it’s all such a bloody bore.”

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Josh Sims

Josh Sims is a writer on menswear, design and much else for the likes of Wallpaper, CNN, Robb Report and The Times. He's the author of several books on menswear, the latest 'The Details', published by Laurence King. He lives in London, has two small children and is permanently exhausted.