Photo courtesy of Marc Wathieu / Flickr

Taking Care of Trouble at the Holiday Table

We all know that one relative: that aunt, uncle, or grandparent so entrenched in their outdated (and often racist or misogynistic) political beliefs that any healthy Thanksgiving Day conversation shared with them inevitably downgrades into an unpleasantly heated exchange.  This holiday season, given the unfortunate outcome of the recent election, reasonably-minded people might be anticipating these interactions with heightened anxiety.  I certainly can’t offer a reprieve from this discomfort, but I believe there is constructive way to talk to these very conservative loved ones, as impossible as it might seem.

Simply put, the worst thing a person can do is to reciprocate the intolerance put forward by these individuals.  Essentially, their unnerving viewpoints tend to group all leftist family members together under the blanket term (somehow used in a derogatory manner) of “liberals” prone to the “liberal agenda.”  By doing this, they rationalize their ability to discount any dissenting remarks made toward their antiquated beliefs. And so, not only do they dismiss the opinions of those who disagree with them, but actually degrade the viability of the liberal voice itself, as well as the value of their family members’ opinions.  

This is the most pressing issue in the mindset of such individuals.  Yes, they might say things that are racist, sexist, or otherwise intolerable, but worse than all of these is their attempt to silence the voices of liberal thinkers, family members attempting to bring some reason into their often unreasonable thoughts.  Instead of discounting simply the opinion, they discount the democratic rights of the people behind such opinions. In doing so, they not only insult the value of the conversation itself, but also foster resentment within the structure of the family, resentment which often sticks around for years.

So, what is to be done to counter this ultra-conservative mindset?  Sadly, it is all too easy to fall into the same trap.  From the other side of the political spectrum, leftist thinkers tend to lose respect for these family members because of their passion for generally misguided beliefs.  While it is certainly true that society should strictly oppose conservative attacks on human rights, responding to conservative individuals with intolerance simply makes the situation worse.  Instead, it is more constructive and pleasant to meet people where they are.  We should show intolerance for the opinion rather than the person, and, rather than approaching these loved ones as incorrigible black marks on modern society, we should treat them as reasonable conversation partners with a voice relevant to the world around them.

I can practically sense the reader shaking his head at this—there’s no way Great Uncle Fred or Grandpa Joe would respond positively to such treatment.  After all, in order for a conversation to be constructive (and maybe change some minds), both sides must leave intolerance at the door, though sometimes any effort to salvage such an exchange proves to be futile.

If this is the case with your family, don’t use this as a reason to let intolerance seep into your tone as well.  The coming years will require honest, positive, mature conversations between oppositely-minded members of society.  It may be impossible for these to start right away, but if the select few reading this article head to the holiday table with a tolerant mindset (even toward those who refuse to reciprocate such tolerance), the process of changing democracy for the better will have begun.

So, this year, keep in mind the value of each person’s voice—even those spewing unrestrained—and recognize that it is only together (with all voices) that intolerance can be eliminated from the American mindset.  Political differences are no reason to ruin relationships between family members. By stereotyping the person rather than attacking their ideas, we not only damage the viability of the family structure, but also the very idea of democracy itself.

Right now, it may seem that there isn’t very much to give thanks for, especially considering the events of the last few months, but we still have the ability to recover, politically and socially, and this recovery doesn’t begin in the White House or the Supreme Court, but rather at every dinner table across the United States.  It is from there, if we free ourselves from intolerance, that we can affect true change.

Just an aspiring physicist spewing opinionated orations in the hope that someone is listening. Known to ride bicycles sometimes.