In fewer than two weeks, most of us will be preparing to sit down for a much-anticipated Thanksgiving dinner. Before then, we have many crucial decisions to make — whether to have fresh or frozen turkey or be the last in our circle to try turducken; whether to bake or deep fry the bird; whether to up our personal liability insurance if we opt for deep frying; etc. But perhaps one of the most important decisions is how to deal with political firefights which threaten to ruin the day, especially if Uncle Nate passes the stuffing to niece Cathy while muttering that the impeachment hearings are nothing more than a witch hunt.
In our deeply polarized society, any discussion of politics on turkey day is bound to become explosive. There appears to be no middle ground anymore. In the “Age of Trump,” people have chosen to join tribes with a “take no hostages” mentality.
I lay the blame at the feet of the 24/7 cable news channels and the internet, two media megaphones we didn’t have when I was a kid. Too many of us spend our days marinating in partisan media. Some turn their TVs on when they awake and off when they go to bed. The incessant boosterism for one side and not-so-sly demeaning of the other has its effects, even if folks only subliminally pick-up snippets of interviews and news. Subscription podcasts that continue to massage the message while people are sitting on buses, trains, and planes only aggravate the situation.
The success of such classical conditioning should make famed psychologist Ivan Pavlov smile from the grave. When some among us hear the president’s name, they automatically respond with “misogynist” or “pathological liar.” For others, the name “Clinton” triggers “crooked Hillary” and “lock her up.”
If you wish to debate any of this, it doesn’t help any more to be armed with the facts because we’re living in a new age where “facts don’t matter.”
In a recent ad lib speech at the VFW’s annual convention, the president again accused the media of spreading “fake news” and said, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening." Such statements help ensure that anyone committed to a certain way of perceiving things won’t be swayed by what you yourself have read, heard, or even witnessed and inherently know is true. Lately, this even applies to sworn testimony given to the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight Committees by career diplomats and a decorated combat veteran now serving with the National Security Council.
The erosion of truth may be the most harmful inheritance of the last three years. American political theorist Hannah Arendt feared, “If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.” There can be no useful or even playful debate on Thanksgiving if participants refuse to acknowledge the basic ground rule that facts matter.
To remedy this situation, I advise everyone to take a holiday from politics on Thanksgiving. As folks arrive and you take their coats, gently tell them partisan talk won’t be on the table with the stuffing. Nor will it be allowed in the living room or kitchen. If you are a guest for dinner, kindly inform the host or hostess of your preference to make the day all about family, friends, turkey, and football. If you get immediate push-back, you are in for a rough ride.
You may think my advice comes from a land of unicorns and rainbows, and I realize that family dinners can never be like games with referees. You can’t really eject any player for roughing the passer of pickles when he calls her a “Never-Trumper.” Too, some people just can’t avoid politics when they converse. (See the above reference to Pavlov and classical conditioning.) If that’s the case, try these simple strategies:
Look for commonalities in what Chatty Cathy and Nattering Nate have to say. For example, if the subject is the Second Amendment, they may both be in favor of universal background checks for all gun sales. More than 90% of the public is.
If there is sarcasm and ridicule, suggest that both individuals take time to investigate and appreciate what the other side is saying to help cross the divide. Emphasize the importance of open-mindedness and civility in our society.
If none of this works, just be patient and await the storied effects of the turkey’s tryptophan. It should soon have Cathy and Nate dozing in the living room by the time the Bills and Cowboys line up to battle on the flat screen.
Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears every other Friday. Email him at email@example.com.