Opinion

Don't argue about politics this Thanksgiving. Just don't.

Instead of hashing out talking points ripped from the internet, try getting to know each other

Imagine this scene on Thanksgiving day. The turkey is partly carved, the mashed potatoes are being passed around.

Your Mother: What are you thankful for?

You: Well, if I can say so, I'm thankful for ObamaCare because it was great that I was able to sign up for health insurance on the internet.

Caricatured Uncle: Hope Reverend Wright isn't on your death panel! Payback for Ferguson coming to you.

Your Mother [hoping to get control of the situation]: I did something different this year with the sweet potatoes! Do you like it?

Never fear. The pundits are here to save you. Think Progress has a guide on "how to argue with your Evangelical uncle" about marriage equality. Vox is advising you on Bill Cosby, Ferguson, and immigration (you're for it as much as possible, of course).

Last year, some of Michael Bloomberg's dollars trickled down to someone who gave you talking points on gun control. Chris Hayes is once again dedicating an hour of his MSNBC show to the cause.

Less combatively, Conor Friedersdorf advises you to adopt his brand of nodding empathy: "Before you focus on any point of disagreement, ask questions of your interlocutor to figure out why they think the way they do about the subject at hand."

These advice columns are becoming a genre unto themselves. The stock villain: crazy right-wing uncle, the jokes about stuffing. But I recognize them by what they unwittingly emulate: guides for religious evangelism. The gentle, righteous self-regard, the slightly orthogonal response guides, the implied urgency to cure your loved ones of their ignorance. Your raging uncle will know the truth, and the truth will set him free.

That's a problem. Our politics are taking on a religious shape. Increasingly we allow politics to form our moral identity and self-conception. We surround ourselves with an invisible community of the "elect" who share our convictions, and convince ourselves that even our closest and beloved relatives are not only wrong, but enemies of goodness itself. And so one of the best, least religious holidays in the calendar becomes a chance to deliver your uncle up as a sinner in the hands of an angry niece.

I'm as guilty of this as anyone. As a conservative raised in an argumentative and left-leaning Irish-American family, Thanksgiving and other holiday dinners did more than any professional media training to prepare me for MSNBC panels. But arguments like these, particularly when we allow politics to dominate our notions of ourselves, can leave lasting scars. And precisely because our familial relationships are so personal, the likely responses to our creamed and beaten talking points will be defensive, anxious, off-subject, or overly aggressive.

You might think you can sneak in a killer talking point about immigration reform, only to touch off a sprawling congress about the personhood of unborn children, the Vietnam War, and whether it is really sexist to describe Nancy Pelosi as a "tough broad."

Instead, what we really need are guides for gently deflecting the conversation away from politics, as our polite grandmothers once did.

Bringing up politics can be a form of self-assertion, or a way for a family member to test whether he is accepted for who he is. One of the reasons the "conservative uncle" has become the cliched oaf of the Thanksgiving dinner is precisely because he may feel, rightly or wrongly, that the country is moving away from him. He could be testing to see whether his family is ready to reject him, too. Or he could just be an oafish, self-regarding lout. Either way, it doesn't have to be that hard to show he is appreciated as a family member and human being.

Caricatured Uncle: Obummer sure got waxed in that election. Guess he isn't the Messiah, huh?

You: Har har, you got me. But hey, I get to read and think about the news every day. I only see you twice a year. How is the renovation going?

Instead of honing your argument on tax reform into unassailability, maybe ask your parents or siblings ahead of time what some of the further-flung or more volatile members of your family are up to in their lives before they sit down. Get the family's talking points, rather than Mike Bloomberg's.

And if you do want to pointlessly and frustratingly argue about politics with your uncle, just friend him on Facebook.

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