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Partisanship and Passing the Potatoes

Mary Helen Kennerly

What happens when you defriend family on Facebook—and then find yourself sitting across from them at the holiday get together?  A 2016 study published in Science magazine showed that when families of mixed political affiliations gathered for holidays, their dinners were 30-50 minutes shorter than those of like-minded families. And in precincts where the most money was spent on political advertising that presidential-election year, this effect as much as tripled.

Now, in 2020, a contentious election has left most of us feeling touchy and uncertain, we’re weathering a pandemic for which precautions break along partisan lines, natural disasters have ravaged us, and racial reckonings have rocked our cities and social groups.

If we are White, memes on Facebook encourage us to call out racism among our relatives and friends at the dinner table, where call-outs that reference George Floyd’s or Breonna Taylor’s deaths feel like intolerable accusations to some and, to others, a way to make the world more equitable.  Politics that have been personal for many Black, Latinx, immigrant, of same-sex families for generations can take on sudden intensity for folks who are just finding out why.  And that intensity may also seem bewilderingly combative for those who are tuned more into local or individual concerns.      

As politics becomes for increasing numbers of us a matter of life and death—no longer a game, but a bloodsport, maybe we should ask: How convincing are our arguments, anyway?

We all know the dismay of presenting an articulate and well-considered position to a loved one, and finding that they don’t agree despite our clarity or claims to moral high ground.  But legal scholar and Holberg Prize-winner, Cass Sunstein, writes that in instances of high-intensity political debate, we experience “group polarization,” or taking a more extreme position during an argument than we otherwise might. And every time we face opposition in groups, we become more entrenched.  So relatives who react in ways we attribute to irrationality or bias are simply experiencing the same polarization pulls us away from them, too.

If we can give up on trying to convince our relatives that they’re wrong, this may enable us to stay on speaking terms, but how can we honor the intensity of our political causes, and advance them?  And if we recognize that gladiatorial rhetoric at the dinner table isn’t the way to change anyone’s mind, how can we overcome our dismay in order to ask great-auntie to pass the gravy?  I’ve come up with a few tips borne of years of crossing the Mason-Dixon Line for the holidays, and with an assist from Jeanne Safer, author of I Love You but I Hate You: How to Protect Your Intimate Relationships in a Poisonous Partisan World (2019):

  • Learn what relatives who disagree with you value and what they fear. 
  • Listen: you will have the whole rest of the year to see them repost memes and hear cable news hosts characterize their positions.  Take this chance to hear a political viewpoint directly from the opposition (your own goofy uncle, who maybe taught you how to armpit-fart, remember?)  Family gatherings give you that opportunity—if you can stomach it.  The most influential people in our political sphere have been telling us not to turn away from the challenging conversations.  But showing contempt, Safer writes, never “convinces or charms anyone, ever.”  Try seeing your work as hearing without revulsion and seeking to understand.  If it feels too much like ceding ground, think of it as gathering intel for your like-minded buddies back home.  Whatever it takes to keep you engaged without reacting.  You may find that you accidentally create space for that disagreeable in-law to understand you.  Isn’t understanding what you hoped you’d get when you labored over that last Facebook post?  What happens if you extend it first?
  • Stay curious. 
  • What’s the worst that could happen?  You’re afraid that you’ll hear a viewpoint so hideous that you won’t be able to look at your loved ones the same way again?  If you’re harboring that suspicion, you’re already there.  Remember that your loved one “has legitimate reasons for his or her position,” Safer writes.  Find out what’s behind an opinion, what stories about self or the world are at its heart.  You may just take the fire out of the topic—and out of yourself.  This also works well on bigoted jokes: act as if you don’t get it, and feign curiosity about what it implies.  Doing so may require your relative to explain a joke, which everybody knows suggests it wasn’t funny in the first place.

  • No phones at the table.  Seriously. 
  • One of Safer’s tips for arguing with a partner who disagrees with you politically is not to turn dinner table conversation into a term paper.  “Speak for yourself,” she writes.  “Never quote outside authorities to bolster your point of view.”  Dueling facts are not likely to be resolved on Google before your food gets cold.  Research shows that we don’t integrate facts that feel untrue, anyway (Ott 2020).  You have a chance with family members who have seen you at your best and worst, and vice versa, to delve into the emotions behind their viewpoints, allowing for vulnerability, trust, and mutual understanding.  All pretty close runners-up if agreement is off the table.
  • Set and respect boundaries.
  • There are topics which no person can be expected to remain curious about, and contexts in which you’d have to be superhuman to avoid reacting passionately to.  Agree ahead of time to sideline content that is radioactive.  Or gently and firmly request a change of subject.  Honor that request from others.

When it comes to boundaries, 2020 may provide us one of its own.  This most contentious of years in recent memory is likely to see us staying at home anyway due to COVID-19.  As fewer of us decide to gather, and those who eschew distancing and do decide to gather are more likely to agree on politically, we get a time-out from each other.  With any luck, we’ll miss each other.  

And maybe we’ll get the space we need to avoid deepening rifts and doing more damage.  I’m going to be taking this time to be intentional about how I’m going to interact with the loved ones who will enrage me most quickly after I have had the relief of hugging them again. 

Instead of assuming the worst about an in-law, assume that neither social justice nor the preservation of individual freedoms is going to be increased if we write off a relative.  Assume that convincing the opposition by way of debate is ineffective.  And try convincing yourself that there’s something to be gained from disagreeing with someone, and loving them anyway.

Doherty, W. J. (2020). I love you, but I hate your politics: How to protect your intimate relationships in a poisonous partisan world. Journal of Marital & Family Therapy, 46(1), 181.

Iyengar, S., Konitzer, T., & Tedin, K. (2018). The home as a political fortress: Family agreement in an era of polarization. Journal of Politics, 80(4), 1326-1338.

Keith Chen, M., & Rohla, R. (2018). The effect of partisanship and political advertising on close family ties. Science, 360(6392), 1020-1024.

Ott, T. M. (2020). Family politics. Christian Century, 137(23), 14-15. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=afh&AN=146457155&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Safer, J. (2019). I Love You, but I Hate Your Politics: How to Protect Your Intimate Relation-ships in a Poisonous Partisan World. New York: All Points Books.

Sunstein, C. R. (2002). The law of group polarization. Journal of Political Philosophy, 10(2), 175-195.

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