Dealing with contention at family gatherings

Emily Doran

Right before Thanksgiving, a skit from Saturday Night Live featuring argumentative family members putting aside their differences and bonding over Adele’s hit single, “Hello” made its rounds on social media. While the clip was highly entertaining, poking fun at the general populace’s obsession with the British singer and her music, it revealed a much more disturbing and profound problem in American culture. Namely, this is a distinct lack of empathetic civil discourse at the individual level.

The heated political and social debates in the skit—stemming from the characters’ firmly held and, arguably, non-negotiable beliefs—are, unfortunately, reasonably accurate echoes of a legitimate issue. In particular, the notion that family members can often be viciously split over political and social issues is a problem experienced by many real families, including my own.

In fact, my family has even developed a “no-discussion-of-religion-or-politics” rule effective whenever my older siblings are home. This policy is a reality for many other people, particularly around the holidays.

To a very real degree, I can empathize with this desire to shut out certain serious and contentious issues like religion and politics during family gatherings. After all, they rarely produce any effective, thoughtful discourse. On the contrary, discussion of such topics typically devolves quite rapidly into bitter attacks on individuals (as opposed to their ideas); name-calling; determined refusals to consider another’s viewpoint; and, considering the gravity of some of these debates and their topics, horrifying realizations that many people operate from entirely different moral and ethical codes.

At the same time, many families who have reached the point of needing to impose rules that eliminate certain talking points have already seemingly exhausted every other avenue available. For example, I have sat through countless volatile debates between my family members about every heated issue imaginable, and rarely have I ever witnessed any consensus or understanding achieved. Rather than futilely continuing to rehash exhausted topics, my family chose the next logical option, which was to eliminate them altogether.

In a broader context, this scenario creates a false dichotomy: It implies that the only two options available are silence or viciousness. In reality, this is not the case. Rare though it may be, it is both possible and necessary to engage in empathetic civil discourse in both the private and public spheres.

I cannot stress enough how important it is for individuals to keep their lines of thoughtful communication open to others in order to continue to foster healthy and fruitful discussions. You may never agree with someone else’s opinion about a certain topic, but at least you can be able to discuss your reasoning with them. You may even fundamentally disagree with a person’s moral and ethical background from which they form their opinions, but you should still be able to discuss that.

Some solutions for how to handle ideological differences between people have of course been presented, but I would argue that many of them don’t effectively address the real problem. Institutional policies that attempt to suppress and control free speech on college campuses, for example, aren’t handling the core of the issue when they put unnecessary and stifling restrictions on students. Instead, such policies could easily be construed as a large-scale version of families’ bans on certain topics at the dinner table.

In order for real change to occur, there must be a mass adjustment at the individual level. Individuals must assess the ways that they broach contentious issues with others in order to promote productive discourse. No amount of institutional restrictions will be as effective.