We’ve reached the season of the annual Thanksgiving Guide to Arguing With Your Family — a listicle masquerading as thinking or empathy, yet more proof that the best way to blunder into a war is by assuming one is scheduled.
Having a fun family kept me from realizing until later in life that the holiday political battle wasn’t solely a sitcom trope. All along, I’d assumed TV writers kept riffing on the invention of a family that not only didn’t mind heaving imprecations like grenades, but eagerly lay in wait for the chance to frag misbegotten uncles like loathsome COs in Vietnam.
It sounds exhausting, because it is.
Obviously, many people face real conflicts with their family: needing to assert their religious or gender identity or validate interracial relationships before an intimately hostile crowd. But by and large, these guides eschew the immediately existential — topical savvy withers in the face of issues so profound — in favor of zingers about, say, tax reform.
Anticipating winning a fight you’ve not yet had and whose shape you do not yet know also seems staggeringly futile, for a couple of reasons. For one, if there were a universal guide to Winning the Politics, we’d all be reading a political savant’s final word on the matter. One-size-fits-all talking points don’t need more than one author. But people and conversations don’t work that way. They evade challenges and change topics. By the time you finish a conversation with Dad that began with tax reform, you’ll have traveled a path that looks like the org chart of Exxon and ends with him ducking his chin and chewing his lower lip with the rueful burning expression of Rex Tillerson fighting to keep down that last McDouble.
For another, the past two years of American politics and the shredding of any concept of universally accepted facts should have destroyed any notion of a universal strategy for breaking someone out of their ideological corner. In a world where “fake news!” ends any conversation, plotting your end-run on someone else’s belief system might as well begin with, “Step One: Tell them you are Batman, then become Batman.”
If nothing else, maybe it’s time to ask why we seem intent on girding ourselves for conflict after two atrocious years of campaign season that got inexplicably picked up for a third. Only the most determined of sociopaths can convince themselves they’re somehow enjoying the fractious life of Trumpworld. Everyone else seems to be retreating to binging shows, romcoms, comfort novels, reliably soothing media encounters.
In that vein, a colleague of mine and I started a podcast feature reviewing Hallmark Christmas movies, not because they are especially good, but because they are, in his coinage, made for the gentlest of people. The hero’s journey in all of them is clear: Children love the holidays, tarry mistakenly with career dedication as young adults, then mature into a holiday joy that seems to automatically trigger a pastry-abundant semiretirement. It is a bizarrely Marxist message from a vector for selling greeting cards: “Labor and worry are ruining you, but I, your mother, have baked everyone a pie.”
These movies are funny in a mordant way that doesn’t reveal itself at first. It takes awhile of chuckling at high-definition two-dimensional earnestness to realize that the thing you are laughing at is how ridiculous it seems that these people keep listening to others they’re convinced mean well. “Ha! Get a load of this decency and striving for understanding” is a kind of joke, but it’s probably best not to ask whom it’s on. That kind of sustained listening is what most political organizers will tell you is the only thing that stands a chance of changing most people’s minds, and it also shares its origins with the same process that ends with savagely dunking on grandpa about a random current event.
You could take the wrong lesson from this. You could conclude that it’s best to start by listening, then asking questions about what you have heard. Get them comfortable, maybe help them lean into telling a few stemwinders. Remember what they said, and pursue things that interest you gently but with focus. Spot the contradictions, point them out without being confrontational, then ask questions that allow the other person to reason out how they’ve managed to reconcile them. Pretty soon, they’ll have spun out enough threads of conversation to hang themselves with. Or maybe they’ll feel so glad for the attention that they approach for a hug with open arms, exposing the ribs. That’s where the knife goes, if you haven’t done this before.
Or you could skip it altogether.
The begged question at the heart of so many How to Eviscerate People Who Probably Love You cheat sheets is that you’ve somehow not had these arguments before and won’t have them again, and now’s the time: You must win rapidly and decisively, a verbal Schlieffen Plan wheeling on grandma with 34 divisions and no looking back.
But even if you dominate your entire extended family breathless debate-nerd style Thursday, you still won’t be there Monday morning, and I suspect that the crowd sniffing around for zippy how-Tos on crushing their relatives over turkey and dressing aren’t the kind that intend to pursue, through phone calls and visits and letters, the long, hard work of political persuasion. Part of the reason you can change someone’s mind over a long stretch of time is that the sacrifice of all that effort tells them wordlessly how much they and their change mean to you. If the war matters that much, it will still be there for many more tomorrows.
But this is Thanksgiving. It won’t be here for long. You’re not going to win, but you might manage to devour time with better things. If you want to come armed with an itemized list, consider one with eggs, flour and extruded can-shaped pumpkin matter. At least, at the end, there’s pie. For everyone.