Every holiday season I look forward to two things: My mother’s pecan pie, and explosive political debates with my Trump-supporting dad. We’re talking knock-down, drag-out, I-brought-my-notes-to-the-dinner-table arguments. As a former conservative that now leans liberal, not to mention a fiend for lively discussion, I live for them.
Let’s be clear: I can verbally spar with my dad, disagree with everything he says, want to pull out my hair at times, and still not think he’s “crazy.” In fact, for as much as we argue, and even as our differences grow ever polarized, our relationship is as solid. He’s still the one I call when I want to impress my boyfriend with new nuggets of car knowledge. I refuse to purchase any electronics before consulting him and the pro/con list I know he will write for me. And when I’m blue, he knows to send me photos of our 14-year-old dachshund, Barney (whom my father may have named after George W. Bush’s Scottish Terrier).
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Friends often wonder how I can “put up” with him and his politics. And there are times when I wonder if I’m going to end up on the wrong side of history if I don’t walk away from a conversation feeling as though I’ve changed his mind on an issue I passionately believe will have immediate, literal life-or-death consequences (ahem, gun control). But the thing is, I’m not trying to change his mind. I don’t think I could if I tried. But that’s not a reason to stop arguing.
No matter how many articles break down “How to Avoid All Talk of Politics at the Dinner Table” during this time of year, I refuse to heed their advice for the sake of “keeping the peace.” Even when things are buttoned up and everyone is “playing nice,” they’re asking you to pass the rolls through clenched teeth because of that thing (you know the one) you posted on social media. Arguing can be a productive middle ground between pretending the elephant in the living room doesn’t exist, and never speaking to your Aunt Linda ever again. And every once in awhile, you might actually get somewhere.
That being said, there is some technique to it.
“People should be careful not to wander into hot issues accidentally — or to ambush others,” says Dr. Peter Coleman, Columbia Professor of Psychology. “After some time, you might explicitly ask if you can discuss the issues — but respect that different people need more and less time to come around and be willing to engage again.” This explains why, when I sent my dad an article on the latest climate change research, he needed a few days to process before we discussed the California wildfires.
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Experts also say that one of the hardest parts of having a productive and respectful argument with a family member is vulnerability — and that’s exactly why I think I’m so committed to the cause of breaking down the issues with my father at the dinner table. Growing up, I was fed a constant stream of conservative politics. A typical weeknight saw me plopped on the floor, cast in the glow of Fox News, jeering at the “libs” and rooting for the conservatives. In my household, Republicans were the home team, while Democrats weren’t just the ideological opposition, they were our ignorant, thin-skinned rivals.
When I moved out of my small town and into an urban center (Los Angeles first, then New York), I slowly — like, very slowly — changed my political tune. Eight years later, I now identify as a liberal-leaning moderate. While my dad blames my personal development on college, aka the “Ivory Towers of Institutionalized Liberalism,” I’m more inclined to believe that it was certain level of vulnerability, and my willingness to listen to a point of view that challenged my self-perception as a “conservative” that made the difference. It took time to develop that skill, and I get how for some people it can feel impossible.
“There’s this fear that, ‘I’m dissolving. My core identity is dissolving’ when you listen,“ Psychology Today contributor David Evans tells InStyle. “You’re confronting your death if you’re open to relinquishing some of the ideas that your identity is tied up with.” Actually listening to those with polar-opposite political views from your own is the scariest part of the whole process — doing so changed my whole political (and therefore personal) identity. But allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is what helps us grow, both as people and in our relationships.
Of course, there’s one caveat to this call to action. Not everyone is privileged enough to have the space to be heard without fear of extreme retribution. If you’re in a position where arguing your point of view at home could ultimately be unsafe or cause irreconcilable rifts within your family, there are clear reasons to avoid it. However, should you be in a position to test the waters a bit, I highly recommend it.
When the bell finally tolls at the end of a debate between my father and I (read: my mother says “okay, chill”) and we pick up our pecan pie, I remember that I was fiercely debating the same man who raised me to believe in equal opportunity and hard work and kindness and the Lakers — he just has some different ideas than I do now, ideas that probably won’t ever change. But if a healthy debate draws us closer, rather than driving us apart with what’s left unsaid, then that’s worth fighting for.
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