Dear Dr. Wes and Katie: I am dreading the holidays. All summer my family argued about politics. I was home from college, and I’m more liberal than my family. By Thanksgiving, we’ll know who wins the next election, and either way it’s going to be horrible. My family doesn’t argue about these things in a civil way. They argue like they’re on Fox News, and it always gets personal. Suggestions?
Katie: On the first day of school, my AP Politics teacher told the class that there are simply some issues that people (teens and adults alike) can’t discuss calmly and intelligently. For families like yours, that seems to encompass all political issues.
I’m no stranger to your situation. My parents are split evenly, one liberal and one conservative. On any given night, you can see my mom watching MSNBC in one room and my dad tuned to Fox News in the other. At our family reunions — attended by every political shade of blue, red and purple in the crayon box — we’ve learned to press the “taboo button” the moment a hint of public policy comes up.
Ideally, debates should expose open minds to differing viewpoints, but in reality, few people start arguments with the idea of changing their own minds. Ideology turns to cement when hot topics like tax policy and health care rear up. No matter how friendly a post-election debate may seem at the outset, political issues are inherently divisive and will only serve to further undermine holidays’ true meaning: family unity.
I suggest you ask your family members to leave partisanship on the front stoop for the holidays. We can’t wipe our core values off on the doormat, nor should we, but it’s fair to request that no one invite the hovering spirits of Obama and Romney to dinner. The trick is getting the whole family on board, which means speaking with them long before the holidays begin. You might not all vote together on Election Day, but you may get a unanimous vote for a politics-free holiday if you’re direct about how you feel.
Holidays are meant to bring families together. You’re only going to be home for a few days, so encourage them to waste as little time as possible on unwinnable battles from opposite sides of the aisle.
Dr. Wes: I find this an unusually disturbing letter, even as what you describe is as common now as apple pie.
When my college girlfriend came to visit my family over the holidays, I found her crying in the bedroom. Asked, she said she had concluded that my family hated each other because we’d argued so much at dinner. I genuinely had no idea what she was talking about. I recalled discussing nothing more than the benefits and shortcomings of China’s adherence to a communist political system in the post-WWII era. She agreed that was the topic but insisted we must hate each other if we would argue like this. Eventually she came to see that this was all in good intellectual fun, perhaps even an expression of our love for one another, and she married me anyhow.
Ah, those were the days. A time when people could argue about the big issues of the world and still like each other — and I’m talking the era of the Cold War, Watergate, Ford, Carter and Reagan.
It wasn’t that we all agreed on stuff. Far from it. We just talked about that stuff in a way that didn’t degrade one another and ourselves. Today, the tenor is so angry, vicious and devoid of logic that I find new relevance in my wife’s concerns about families “hating each other.”
The national vitriol is filtering down to the dinner table, dividing families, breaking up friendships and making people as socially irrational as the Mad Men who write commercials for Super-PACS. I have a friend who constantly gets what he terms “crazy emails” from fringe groups, some of which he fears are being monitored as terrorist threats. They come from his dad.
So here’s an idea: Let’s not. There are hundreds of places to discuss politics today, some better than others. Do exactly as Katie suggests and ask your family to quell the rancor over Thanksgiving or Christmas, lest you end up crying in the bedroom. And if they refuse, excuse yourself politely, go to a friend’s house and ask them to text you when they’re done. Neither Obama nor Romney will ever know you’re gone.
And by the way new young adults, don’t forget to vote.