Politics at Thanksgiving: Conversations at Family Holiday Gatherings

Understand the Dynamics

Increasingly Americans no longer simply vote for a political party, but derive their primary identity from it. For some toward either outside edge facts, complexity, basic decency, and the health of the republic do not matter. All that matters is that our team wins. Tribalism reigns. We lose.

There are several anxieties beneath this tribalism.

There is increasing economic pressure on the majority of Americans. Point one percent of the population have as much wealth as the bottom ninety percent. Wages have been essentially flat since 1975 while productivity has increased more than twofold. Eighty four percent of stocks are owned by ten percent of the people. Meanwhile, asset costs like houses have gone way, way up leading to increase in rent and other costs. Many people are feeling a sense of scarcity.

At the same time, we have seen America become more racially, culturally and religiously diverse. Some leaders have connected this greater diversity for the economic woes of lower and middle-class Americans, scapegoating people of color and immigrants in general for these issues. These leaders leverage the bias we all have to convince us to turn against our fellow Americans, our fellow human beings.

Many are anxious about the changes we see in the environment. The size and rainfall of several hurricanes, ocean level rise and cycles of drought and deluge are becoming quite obvious. Some express this anxiety in denial while others experience despair.

Fifty percent of Americans report chronic loneliness. Being lonely produces profound pain and anxiety on its own. The fact that our families are mostly spread over a wide geographic area is a part of this loneliness.

Could it be that our anxiety about our political differences with your family is increased by the threat that you might be shunned by the people you need unconditional love from the most?

There are several dynamics behind this tribalism.

Human beings have a lot of confirmation bias. We tend to accept information that affirms our point of view and reject the rest. For human beings, being wrong is not just about being wrong. Being wrong means that we may not be smart enough to survive. Being wrong is seen as a threat to our survival – leading to deep and often wordless anxiety.

Our individual perspective on politics, the way we organize human community, has a lot to do with our deep values. Values conflict is the deepest kind of conflict and amplifies our anxieties even further.

We now have media and social media bubbles in which we don’t have to hear perspectives that challenge us – except when these perspectives are distorted, simplified and ridiculed.

Gerrymandering has also contributed to this dynamic, as politicians are picking their voters instead of the other way around. The politicians in these districts have to worry more about challenges from their own party than a debate with those from the other party. This disincentivizes compromise for the common good on the part of our politicians who blame and dehumanize those in the other party. This deepens the divide between our political parties, and the divide between those of us in different parties as we cut the turkey.

We are anxious and we are being torn apart.

We don’t have to live this way.

Clarify Your Identity

So, who are you? What is your primary identity?

If you are primarily a Democrat or a Republican, are you sure that identity is adequate to the beauty, mystery, pain and promise of being a human being? I mean, really?

Take some time to be quiet, meditate or pray and consider this situation. Find a wisdom tradition, a faith tradition, a poet, a philosopher and start reading and being in conversation with folks about it.

First of all, let’s remember that we are alive. Being alive is exceedingly rare. Even on this planet teeming with life, the biomass makes up a very small percentage of the mass of the earth. Of all the planets and stars astronomers have sensed, the earth is the only one we know of that has life like this. This life is worth tending.

Second, let’s remember that we are human. All the great traditions try to teach that each human being has meaning and value. They teach that a part of the meaning of being human is to recognize the dignity of other human beings.

Third, all great traditions teach us to seek a balance between our needs and the needs of others. They teach this because most of these traditions have been born out of situations where one group or another were being dehumanized or exploited. They saw that this always leads to conflict and death and sought to keep that learning alive.

Fourth, these traditions can give us some perspectives we can use about these challenging times, because human beings have been in challenging times before. This can help us chill out a bit.

Take some time and think and feel deeply about how you understand what it is to be human.  Begin to hold, in the deep imagination of silence, prayer, or meditation, the humanity of your family. Are they just avatars of their political party, or are they human beings worthy of your respect and unconditional love?

Discern Your Priorities

Ask yourself what your goal is for your time with your family.

Are you going as a partisan to engage in political debate with them? Are you going armed with facts and figures and some good zingers seeking to win and afraid of losing?

Are you going to just be with family and dread the moment with uncle Bobby or aunt Suzie pop off?

The reality is that just as you are having “pre-conversations” in our head with Bobby and Suzie, they are having “pre-conversations” with you in their head. But these conversations in your head are not without cost. They take energy, they begin to build up pre-conversation anxiety and even resentments. Try to see these pre-conversations as an expression of your anxiety and not really about them.

Now we all know that there are people, some of them in our families, that are just jerks. That see everything as one great competition and may be mostly captivated by our tribal dynamic. Can we begin to see the difference between them and the others in our family that we just disagree with on some things?

The other possibility is that you just want some time with your family, where people love you unconditionally. If this is the case, then you have to assess whether a conversation about politics is important at all.

Or, you could create a situation where there will be safe zones in which politics won’t be discussed such as the dinner table, football game, and the like.

You could also set up an expectation that if people want to talk politics, they need to go for a walk with each other. This has the benefit of taking off some holiday pounds, creates an op-in conversational event, and contains the conversation to an hour or so.

Negotiate with Family

I suggest calling some of the key people in your family and discussing how politics will be handled at the holiday gathering. You probably know who you can talk with about it. If you are having trouble discerning who to call, think of the person who is able to be the most-calm when the family is in conflict.

State your priorities and listen to those of the other family leader. Share with them that you want this to be a good time with family, that you miss being with them, and your hope that people could respect one another. Try to lay out some ground rules.

Then share the ground rules with everyone and together with the other family leader enforce them gently.

Listen and Breathe

Most of us feel that our deep values, experiences and perspectives are not respected, that we are not listened to. So, let the change begin with us.

If you go on a post-turkey politics walk, begin by asking them to share about an issue that is important to them. Listen deeply, without trying to put debate points together while they listen. Ask good questions. Let them talk.

When you get anxious, breathe deeply and try to relax.

This may be the hardest thing you have done in a while. Your own confirmation bias, anxiety and loneliness may try to get the best of you. Do your best and be kind to yourself.

Think of this as a learning experience instead of a debate.

Honor Deep Concern

I spoke to a Tea Party Patriot recently. After 2 hours of conversation I realized that much of what he was feeling was the loss of a simpler world, and even the loss of his youth. I asked him about the first of these. He began to weep a bit, saying that he felt the world was just too complicated. He became human to me in that moment and I think he felt that I heard him.

Remember that the opposite of love is not anger, but indifference. Honor the fact that your conversation partner cares about the nation, the world, and the well-being of their children or grandchildren. What you are arguing about is the best way to produce that well-being.

Communicate Shared Values

As you listen, try to hear the deeper concerns. Check them with your conversation partner and see if you can find some commonality, even if it is small one.

Read again the US Constitution and share with them your respect for the civil and human rights that support our shared society.

Share Deep Values

If your conversation partner says something that you find deeply offensive, say about race, refrain from labeling them.  Rather, I suggest you be prepared to share your deep value.

Once I was with some distant family members and they began to use racial slurs. All I said was, “I would appreciate it if we could not talk about human beings that way.”

The slurs stopped. In fact, later on some in the group came to me and apologized for speaking that way. I have seen that group change a lot since then, and even have seen others request that racial slurs no longer be used.

Another option is to tell a positive story about a group that is being dehumanized. It is best to tell a story about someone you know. When you tell your story nobody can contradict it because it is your story.

Remember that the biggest change that comes out of conversation isn’t during the conversation, but in the days and weeks that follow.

End Conversation Well

As you end your conversation, be sure to tell your partner that you love and respect them – in whatever way makes sense. Acknowledge that you have differences, but that the differences will not shatter your unconditional love. If you said something that was not kind, be the one to apologize for it.

Go Serve Someone

One of the ways to break down the divide is to plan some kind of serving activity over the holiday. To see people with different views actually take time to serve a meal to others, work at a food bank, volunteer at the pet shelter or some other serving activity can be transformative for everyone. Experiences often open us up in ways that words never can.

We The People

But the dynamics that are driving us apart are real and really powerful. If we are going to remain “We the people” or a loving family and not let our society become one never ending hunger games, we are going to recognize the larger game that is being played. We are going to have to dig deep into our own humanity and recognize the humanity of other people.

When tribalism wins we all lose. We don’t have to live this way.

I wish you a blessed holiday season and hope you will share a warm embrace with your family. They are your only family, after all.

Pastor Terry Kyllo

Executive Director, Treacy Levine Center

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