Holiday dinners mean political debates. Here’s what to do

Every Thanksgiving, I post a Facebook status encouraging friends to contact me if they need any help debating their right-wing family members. This annual tradition started as a bit of a joke, but it speaks to a broader phenomenon in the United States: the politicization of Thanksgiving dinner. Over the past few years, the inevitable political debate over dinner has turned into a trope. The Democratic Party has even released talking points to aid people during these discussions! I, for one, am all for these discussions–and I have some suggestions for people who want to bring their A-game.

It would be remiss of me not to point out that there are a number of circumstances under which debating politics at family gatherings might not be worth it. Will the benefits of pushing back against right-wing relatives’ talking points outweigh the costs? More importantly, are you prepared to accept the costs? That answer is different for every person, but the question is worth considering.

If a relative becomes belligerent and toxic, perhaps you should consider a different approach. This article aims to help combat, for example, someone who claims that climate change is fake, not someone spouting racist nonsense about so-called “white genocide.” The lines between mainstream political views and unbridled bigotry have sadly always been malleable, but the rise of Donald Trump and the alt-right have exacerbated this phenomenon. Use your best judgement.

Before the holiday meal, spend some time considering how you craft your arguments. Do a little research and ensure you aren’t committing any logical fallacies. Be polite and courteous, but confident as well. Listen to what your opponents have to say, and actually respond to their points. Try not to get personal, even though you are debating with family members.

Perhaps the most important guideline to keep in mind: debating with family members will probably not produce immediate results. When people are challenged, they often grow defensive. This can be especially true when debating in front of other people. Rather than having an open-minded discussion, the person with whom you are debating will not only want to “win” the debate, but will also want to save face in front of these spectators.

However, do not lose hope. Even if you are unable to convince your right-wing family member that Hillary Clinton was not bribed to give uranium to Russia (she wasn’t), those within earshot can also be swayed. Don’t focus everything on the rancorous relative; understand that your audience also includes the people on the side lines.

The relatives you’re debating with might not change their minds over the course of a single meal, but you can still plant a seed of doubt. Ask them questions that point out major errors in their logic. The goal is not to change them overnight, but to present them with information that over time forces them to reexamine their views.

A few years ago, during a conversation with an anti-abortion friend, I used this method. After hearing him give me the usual spiel about “life beginning at conception”, I asked if he thought women who were raped should have access to abortion. As with most anti-abortion people, he told me that rape was one of the few justifications for abortion. In turn, I asked him how this jived with his “embryos-as-human beings” logic. He was without answer.

Over the next few weeks, he would occasionally iMessage me to try to answer my question. However, I was courteously relentless: I kept reiterating that I wanted to know how he could consistently hold these two views. A month or so later, he confessed to me that perhaps his views on abortion had less to do it with literally being murder, but more because of his religious upbringing. This was a major breakthrough!

Framing our word choices are major keys. I have a number of well-intentioned friends who cannot explain their position without using complex terminology to do so. Although I do not want to prejudge, your grandfather who considers Sean Hannity to be a formidable intellectual probably won’t know what heteronormative patriarchal capitalism is. At best, using complex terminology could needlessly complicate your argument; at worst, doing so ignores the privilege of having access to that information. It is better to explain complex ideas rather than assume that they are widely understood.

Using specific examples also helps explain your ideas and strengthen your argument. It not only aids you in explaining your ideas, but it strengthens your argument. Saying, “Everyone knows Donald Trump is a racist!” may feel right, but it can come across as indiscriminate conjecture. Instead, try arguing, “I think Donald Trump is a racist because he questioned the credibility of a judge for being Mexican-American and he wanted to ban Muslims from entering the United States.” This way your claim is backed up by supporting evidence.

It might be tempting to rebuff right-wing viewpoints by urging them to do their own research. If a relative makes transphobic comments, it might seem appropriate to reply, “Do your own research before you talk about transgender people like that.” In this scenario, you would be in the right – people should do research before speaking on topics outside of their frame of reference. However, this is a poor strategy because your right-wing relatives probably won’t actually do research. Or, if they do, it will be “research” from sources that further confirm their point of view. You are likely their best resource!

Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu never really said, “To know your enemy, you must become your enemy,” but it is still excellent advice. It might be easy to mock Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, or Breitbart for presenting viewers with right-wing narratives, but understanding these narratives can be important when pushing back against them.

Years ago, I attended a Tea Party rally in my hometown. I wanted to see for myself why people were coming out in droves for this conservative movement. The night before, I tuned in to watch Bill O’Reilly’s television program in preparation. The next day, when talking to so-called “tea party patriots,” I heard the same arguments and talking points from The O’Reilly Factor the night before. It was eye opening; had I not watched Fox News the night before, I would have had no clue what they were talking about.

Sometimes political conversations run their course. Perhaps you are feeling weary, or you notice the people around you are beginning to get restless. If you notice the conversation is going in circles, there is power in proposing to shelve further discussion for another time. Lifehacker has an excellent guide on how to do so, but I usually say something along the lines of, “I think we’re at an impasse; I’m going to look up some of the things you brought up later on. Please pass the mashed potatoes.” By making this suggestion, it paints you as self-aware and considerate of others, while also making your opponents look unreasonable if they refuse.

Ultimately, families should discuss politics and current events. All reasonable points of view should be on the table for discussion, and we should encourage healthy dialogue. Competitive, spirited debates can occur between people who respect one another without devolving into petty arguments. Given the turmoil that the United States is going through, it would be a mistake not to discuss the important issues of the day with loved ones.


In Post Notes, I add some additional thoughts or context to a blog post I’ve previously written. That can be found here.