I am dreading Thanksgiving this year because it means seeing my wife’s family, aka my family.
I love them. They are kind and good humored and have welcomed me into their car-crazy, whisky-tasting California clan.
But between the yearly turkey carvings and summer beach reunions sits a big fat argument about what our country stands for, where it’s headed, and how our leaders are running things.
Will our political beef join us at the Thanksgiving table? Will it sit, stewing and blinkless until the first missive is fired? Will lines be drawn and the evening activities be jeopardized?
Or will we choose a conversation only the British would love, replete with ample pauses and indulgent mastication until the tryptophan leaves us comatose?
Here at the Better Government Association, it’s Thanksgiving every day; our staff of investigative journalists, legislative wonks, engagement and development experts must stash their political leanings at the door and put on their non-partisan cardigans, Mr. Rogers style — it’s the only way to ensure we serve everyone in the neighborhood.
So how can our commitment to an apolitical ethos guide your approach on Thursday if your table is divided as mine? Here’s a BGA-approved step-by-step process that should limit conflict, support a meaningful, inclusive dialogue, and reduce indigestion:
Ideally we all enroll in a pre-Thanksgiving crash course, built like Driver’s Ed, with a curriculum drawn from the common misconceptions of the day. Instead we spend the year in our self-selected information silos — Hannity! Maddow! Breitbart! The Times! — which means we aren’t even working from the same set of facts.
Your prep task is not to muscle up on your facts but to appreciate that a year’s worth of echo-chamber living has confirmed the biases of everyone at the table, and no measure of reasoned eloquence or fact-shaming will convert them. Reason is a human trait evolved to ensure survival, not force a partisan foe into submission.
Cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber cover this in their new book “The Enigma of Reason,” which paints a tribal picture of hunter gatherers jockeying for position. Only recently in the course of humanity is reason applied to intellectual debate, and our instincts haven’t fully caught up; we’re more likely to dig in than change our minds. So save the preaching and lecturing for a congregation or classroom.
Your mission is to ask genuine, non-rhetorical questions and listen, particularly of and to the youngest members at the table. “Most parents or grandparents are spending all their time thinking about their kids,” says DePaul University Professor Benjamin Epstein. “But they don’t always think about [their kids] in terms of their politics.”
Epstein teaches political science, and he describes his current crop of students as diverse in their viewpoints and values but universally forward-thinking. “Not just what’s important today and next week but also five years and 15 years from now.” Tapping into that vision for the future at this year’s table could offer a welcome, hopeful reprieve from the polarizing present.
It also offers our children a chance to advocate for themselves, especially if we provide calm and respectful setting for their participation. We should want them to be better at this than we are, and if today’s political climate teaches us anything it’s that we’ve become bad teachers.
Take time between forkfuls of pie and on the drive home to reflect while its fresh. What did you learn? If only one takeaway bubbles up, you’ve still done well — that’s one new bit of information or slice of perspective that you didn’t find previously in your Facebook feed or favorite media channel. And the goal isn’t for this new bit to blossom into a new political identity; the goal is to see value on the “other sides” of the debate and confirm that we’ll get further and foster better futures for our children if we do this thing together.
In honor of 2017, let’s sum things up in 140 characters (and remind ourselves that words are more powerful than the tools themselves): Put away your talking points, ask good questions, bring the kiddos into the conversation, see what you learn… oh, and help with the dishes.