Talking politics at Thanksgiving shouldn’t be taboo

(Illustration by Raka Sarkar | Senior Staff Illustrator)

What do you do when someone close to you says something about a topic in the news you find simply reprehensible?

Oftentimes, the instinct is to shut up and pretend it didn’t happen — something that’s especially true over the holidays. If your Thanksgiving expectations are similar to mine, you know that the turkey isn’t the only thing that will get stuffed — you have to stuff some of your seemingly controversial ideas deep down.

According to conventional wisdom, it’s obvious a family gathering over the holiday isn’t the time to talk about President Donald Trump, immigration, abortion or football players kneeling during the national anthem. And I agree that I would be easier to enjoy my food and talk about my life when I see my family this Thursday, rather than mediate a debate between aunts, uncles and other relatives.

In some ways, expectations that we keep political opinions hush-hush on Thanksgiving have created a communication barrier between family members. Many people opt out of political or controversial discourse in favor of a more bland topic, such as the weather, when talking among those who might possibly disagree or who have disagreed in the past. A full 31 percent responded in a Reuters poll earlier this month that they’d intentionally avoid discussing politics this holiday season.

But in the long run, keeping our opinions to ourselves about the important issues facing our society can only do more harm than good. At a time when our legislators appear incapable of bridging partisan differences, being afraid to face those who disagree with us within our own families is more cowardly than it is conciliatory. And this holiday might just offer the perfect opportunity to bridge the gap.

When we don’t take ownership of our beliefs, we entrench ourselves even more deeply in the us-versus-them dichotomy of the political atmosphere. It’s easier to villainize the other side when you don’t realize that your loved one believes in all the political principles you consider repugnant.

Much of my immediate family opposes my views on women’s rights, immigration, fossil fuels and much more. At first, their rejection of my views felt personal. But once I gained an understanding of where they came from, and vice versa, it was easier to accept each other’s opposing ideas and talk more calmly than get upset and not talk at all.

If your boyfriend, parent, relative or friend spoke on the opposite side of an argument, would you cut them out of your life? Hopefully not. Rather, you could both talk calmly and respectfully about why you see the issue the way you do.

A 2015 study from the American Sociological Association found that more than half of children in American families either misjudged their parents’ political views or rejected them entirely. While researchers found that more dialogue between parents and their children didn’t necessarily make the kids any more likely to adopt their parents’ politics, they were much more likely to have a realistic grip on what their parents actually believed.

Even among close family, a lack of discussion around political issues leads to misinterpretations and makes the topic seem taboo. It’s hard to get anywhere if we can’t even agree on what the other believes.

Of course, a conversation at the dinner table on Thanksgiving isn’t guaranteed to change anyone’s mind. But that shouldn’t necessarily be your goal when you engage in political discourse. If both sides are only out to convince the other from the start — and neglect to actually listen to how the other person thinks about the issues — the entire conversation will only end in a bitter stalemate. No one will benefit.

The goal is understanding. When we go into conversation wanting to understand and be understood rather than simply to “win,” we’re able to address the other person’s concerns more effectively. Otherwise, we’ll just ignore them and end up more divided than when we started.

Opinions should be malleable and don’t always have to be inherently linked to your sense of identity. And while political opinions can be a major part of social identity for members of oppressed communities, simply ignoring a conflicting opinion at the dinner table won’t make it go away, no matter how illogical you think it may be.

“Democrat,” “Republican,” “liberal,” “conservative” and “libertarian” don’t have to be dirty words. We can’t let our opinions become so internalized that they gain more importance simply because we have not heard otherwise.

Don’t let the Thanksgiving dynamics of political discourse take over your life. Politics are about the defining issues determining how the country runs, and dancing around those discussions is more detrimental than it’s worth. Conversations have to start somewhere, so let them start at the dinner table.

Write to Anne Marie at any41@pitt.edu.

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