Column
December 21, 2016

Talk about politics with your family over the holidays

Shortly before Thanksgiving, internet content farms began releasing articles about how to avoid contentious political discussions with relatives during the holiday season, as if, in the absence of clever techniques of distraction, the carving knife intended for the turkey might soon turn into a weapon. In late November, we were fresh off a nightmare election; a month later, the rancor hasn’t subsided, as liberals grow increasingly convinced of the illegitimacy of Trump’s presidency and increasingly horrified by Trump’s cabinet picks.
Most of these how-to-avoid-politics articles are theoretically nonpartisan but implicitly hinge on the premise that you are a sensible and educated Clinton Democrat who, in the midst of a busy urban professional life, has come home for a single-day gathering of relatives, and you just want to survive this mandatory special occasion without being driven to tears or nausea by the noisy post-election gloating of a bigoted grandparent or a “fake news”-addicted crackpot cousin, if not an entire brood of well-meaning but ill-informed right-leaning provincials.
For city people, it seems, the demands of November and December are as onerous as they are inexorable: the experience of having to leave their yuppie enclaves for a dose of “the real America” (or at least some watered-down suburban facsimile of it) must be regarded as a horror, or else what are their lives all about, anyway, and what are they paying so much in rent for?
If you’re not fundamentally and irreconcilably different from the people who birthed and raised you, can you really say that you’ve succeeded in life? Can you be a progressive if, on the personal end, from a generational perspective, no ideological progress has been made?
Here is my official holiday season advice: if the best you can hope for at your family gathering is to avoid an all-out shouting match by employing cutting-edge strategies of conversational banality in order to maintain a tense veneer of lightheartedness until, with a heavy sigh of relief, you can slip out the door—then, in that case, just don’t go to any family gatherings. Skip them.
Yet if you’re really determined to go home for Christmas, no matter what I say, you might consider offering your benighted family members the respect of presenting to them your full and actual self, which is to say: your politics too, or even your politics most of all. The idea that you operate on so separate a wavelength from your fathers and aunts and step-siblings that meaningful political dialogue is impossible may be true; then again, it may be a conclusion that you settled on to flatter yourself.
But even if you’re right, what do you have to lose by agitating the reactionaries at the table? I can think of nothing more regressively bourgeois than the notion that a familial harmony that is empty at its core nevertheless has worth and must be sustained. If you’re really so deeply removed from your kinfolks’ old-fashioned ways of thinking, go ahead and prove it, and if the old people want a fight, don’t be a baby about it: fighting about politics can be enlivening and personally clarifying regardless of how immovable or illogical your opponent is, and it’ll probably be more fun, for all its frustrations, than an evening of awkward small-talk and silences punctuated by the nervous rattle of silverware.
In the 21st century, however, you may no longer need a broad network of sympathetic cousins to ensure your own survival. Family bonds can still be meaningful, but maybe not if you withhold your real thoughts and opinions on the rare occasions where you get to see your relatives. To be yourself is always a risk, but what else do you have to offer? Only your standard contribution to the soul-crushing theater of holiday civility, the polite shuffle of voiceless, food-stuffed bodies. You don’t need this, and neither, perhaps, does your family, however fragile your feelings or theirs may be.

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