Then they launched a Facebook page and before the midterms drafted a pledge for our local candidates, asking that they refrain from inflammatory and demonizing rhetoric on the campaign trail. Some of those candidates even complied.
This year, membership blossomed to about 140 people, perhaps because the mix of both in-person meetings and members-only Facebook group chats has the advantage of accountability that, say, Twitter “discussions” do not.
In a town as small as ours, insults lobbed online are likely to get payback in uncomfortable encounters at Kroger.
For the past six months, I’ve joined my friends and neighbors at this virtual dining table. We use our real names, we talk about everything from gerrymandering to gun control, media bias to free speech on campus, the trade war with China to the case for impeachment, and I’ve come to one major conclusion: We really are one big, crazy family.
On one side of the table, we have Chris, the liberal moderator who bends over backward to see issues from both sides and to model respectful conversation. On the other side is Scott, the conservative maverick who delights in violating all the rules against name-calling, but then issues a cheerful apology and promises to pray for his own reform.
At the far end is Richard, an elderly gentleman spouting QAnon conspiracies and advocating strip mining the moon for hydrogen-3. My friend Gretchen sits in a place of honor, the free-spirited aunt who calls people on their bull but rushes in to soothe with doses of unconditional affection.
Kirk is the earnest explainer, Mary is the kindness-first peacemaker, and Mark and J.H. get so frustrated their viewpoints aren’t respected that they regularly self-deport for a while. From time to time, a prominent local politician pops in to wag a finger at me and argue that people who “eschew civil dialogue for uncivil action” don’t belong in the room. (Never mind that he didn’t sign the candidate’s civility pledge himself; we are all works in progress.) The best among us are those in a contingent who, not so long ago, were sitting at the kids’ table: Michael, Carl and Robert, who have zero time for old feuds and a lot to say about the future they’re going to live in. In short, it’s a real cross section.
Like every repetitive argument your family ever engaged in, everyone plays a role. It can be just as exhausting to endure as it was back then. To be sure, there have been some heartening shifts, like when one of the die-hard conservatives thanked Chris for his fairness; it was also telling that he did so in private. On the other hand, out of frustration, one of our liberal members lately has taken to combating bad-faith arguments with dripping sarcasm. For me, it’s getting harder and harder to carve out a postage stamp-size common ground when repeat offenders keep breaking the rules with stereotypes and disparagements. Nevertheless, there are plenty of people who are happy to stay and partake, regardless of the table manners on display.
Come actual family Thanksgiving, I blame no one for wanting to set aside disagreement for a day and concentrate on shared gratitude for life’s many blessings. There’s something both beautiful and absurd about momentary truces, like those Christmas Day soccer matches between German and British soldiers during World War I. But nor do I blame those who can’t digest a meal in the company of people whose values are abhorrent to them.
Whichever way you go, take heart. After three years of political indigestion, I think we’ve settled into a holding pattern. The great buffet of disgruntlement has long been laid out and our favorite debates well chewed over. We are all reverting to type. The family that talks politics during the meal will do it again this year. The one that prefers to avoid it will. Those who’ve learned the cost of trolling their relatives can pick their battles on a different day.
I find comfort in the thought that, hysteria over lost civility aside, we might not be much different than we were in turbulent times past, at least at the dinner table. We gather together, knives out. Some of us to carve the bird, others to jab each other. It was ever thus.