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How to Debate the Family Idiot — 11 Tips for Surviving Holiday Politics

With the holiday season approaching, many of us will soon face the familiar joys of political debate at the family table. Perhaps the most productive and hallowed of holiday pastimes, debating politics and other social issues with family is an incredible chance to learn and an even better opportunity to draft real solutions for the tough problems facing our country today. If any of the previous sentences ring true, please call science and have them plasticize you and your entire family. You are worthy of future study and are indeed a greater miracle than whichever deity, animal, or sports team you will be celebrating.

For most of us, politics around the holiday table is unadulterated torture. The limited time we spend with family doesn’t allow for the finer print of our opinions. Instead we’re forced to cram our beliefs into a contentious headline — towing the party line and waging wars we didn’t feel strongly about from the start. Even our least informed relatives are somehow made more brainless and partisan by the advent of a holiday feast. It’s a shame. We’ve come together to connect with loved ones, but too often we find ourselves walking on eggshells or grinding old axes. Turkey makes ideologues of us all.

This year a perfect storm is in the forecast. Polarizing midterm elections, troubles in the Middle East, and a recovering economy promise an arsenal of social hand grenades, trembling at the pin. Even those of us blessed with largely apolitical families may not escape its wrath. There’s always an Uncle Bob or Aunt Sue on the guest list — a family member, just aching to blab on about the latest headlines.

Yes, at this very moment your Uncle Bob is collating the trendiest non-facts from his favorite media pulpit — readying for the right moment to ask you something dumb and aggravating about the Keystone pipeline. Uncle Bob likes his pie with pie charts and he won’t be satisfied until you are stuffed to the gizzard with every Reagan-era aphorism he can remember. In the other corner, your Aunt Sue is pulling all-nighters, absorbing old podcasts and reciting snarky quips from her favorite eCards. She’s been waiting all year to see the look on your face when she opens her MacBook Air and unveils the latest viral protesting anti-virals. Armed with empirical data so infallible, it could only have come from YouTube — Aunt Sue’s jarring segues are the only thing making that store-bought Butterball seem organic.

Yes, their arguments will be ridiculous and their evidence will be the lobotomized versions of stuff my dog thinks, but — by God — Uncle Bob and Aunt Sue are louder than you and by right of conquest, they are going to be heard.

We all experience this crushing dilemma: do I engage, crusading to make the world a better place or do I abstain — masking my nuanced opinions and keeping the peace? Save the world or save the meal?

As the night wears on and your polite wave/smile/sidestep loses its sheepish grace, you may find the choice is made for you. Often we are involuntarily pulled into the fray, tapping into the same righteous rage that fuels Aunt Sue and Uncle Bob’s collective bloodlust. It’s natural – even primitive. An adrenalized fight or flight mechanism takes hold and we’re caught in a mental gridlock with no hope of any real resolution. Suddenly, it’s 2am. We’re so mad we can’t sleep and for the last hour we’ve been muttering vague iterations of things we’ve never clicked from our Facebook feed. “Everyone knows Rand Paul is against traditional breathing.” “I heard Hillary Clinton wants to give financial aid to ghosts.”  

If disinterested, how do we forgo a political skirmish? If involved, how do we maintain our poise? And if cornered and depleted, how do we make our escape? To these questions and more, the following may prove useful…

  • Keep breathing – Let’s rewind to 5pm. The night is young. You still have your composure. Since rage begets rage, this is the best time to galvanize your serenity for the evening to come. Take each comment in stride. Visualize your breath. Practice right now. Breathing gives us perspective. It focuses our attention on the essentials and dissipates our reactive nature. You’ll be breathing whether you think about it or not, so use it as a mental home base. Keep breathing and not just because you’ll die if you don’t.
  • Prepare a mantra – While reading this article, you may find yourself laughing at the prospect of getting angry in a family debate. These mouth breathers can’t ruffle my feathers. Not this year, anyway. This thought is our friend. It’s a snapshot of you in a state of peace and tranquility. In this moment, make a mantra to act as your breadcrumb trail — something short and sweet to remind you of your current mindset. If you feel yourself getting upset, say the mantra. Let it be an avenue back to a calmer you. This season, mine will be “Top of the muffin to you.” Muslims hate women? Top of the muffin to you. Birth control causes homosexuality? Top of the muffin to you. 9/11 was a government conspiracy? Top of the muffin to you. Now, who’s ready for some discourse? …and for fuck’s sake, who is baking muffins?
  • Talk like a peer – Breathing hasn’t worked. Aunt Sue’s assertion that the lunar landings were faked by the Bush administration is getting the better of you. Her weaponized laugh is tearing at the fabric of your reality and her Merlot teeth are evoking a puritanical, witch hunting instinct. Worse yet, she seems to be winning over the room – indoctrinating your parents into her most unfounded beliefs. A lesser you would lash out: You’re the reason our country is going down the toilet.” You may say, “I can’t believe how well brainwashing works on halfwits like you!” Remember your perspective is unique, nuanced, and well researched. Though it may be tempting to take an aggressive, contrarian view as a means of “burning” Aunt Sue, you’ll find more luck expressing your authentic beliefs. Instead of, “you lefties blame the Bush Administration for everything,” try, “I saw a really interesting documentary about that, but there’s plenty of evidence that may challenge your thoughts on the subject.” Talk to her like a peer — not like a child, not like the enemy, and not like a witch. This isn’t The Crucible.
  • Do or Do Not – As previously stated, your perspective is unique. So much so, that it may require more than a gentle jab to explain. If you are going to engage, be prepared to commit. Only requiring one sarcastic barb to defend your entire worldview is both optimistic and naive. Make an active choice to participate or abstain.
  • Know your “enemy” – Political arguments are often derived from other unspoken conflicts within the family dynamic. Frequently, our belief that a relative is smug, prejudiced, or elitist is based on unresolved feelings that developed prior to the meal. Don’t let your preconceptions mute what your relative is saying. Step one in resolving any conflict is having both parties understand how the other feels. Let’s assume the best. Behind every smug simper is an insecure intellect who would like nothing more than to impress you. Behind every angry, bigoted prong is a person who fears their hegemony is at risk. It’s sympathetic, really. Beneath it all, they’re just people — flawed, scared, normal people. Know who you’re dealing with and use this opportunity to comfort and heal. 
  • Define your objective – It’s 8pm. Uncle Bob’s world view is so contrary to your own that you fear a mental Y2K shutting down your entire brain. Instead of drooling on the linoleum, you’ve opted to politely engage in the conversation. You’re in and that’s okay. Politics, religion, current events – these subjects are not poison. They only become deleterious when we let anger corrupt our ability to share and listen. Debating should be a source of insight and a quest for truth – not an exercise in strong-arming our opinion. Your “opponent” may not share this belief, but that will be his or her downfall. Debate with serenity. Discuss with clarity. You can do this and do it well.
  • Listening won’t make you dumber – Remember, this debate isn’t televised (hopefully, anyway) and you are not against the clock. Therefore, silence is your ally. There is nothing more disarming to a political opponent than quiet reflection. Listening is not an act weakness. It is an act of strength and deliberation and it will usually result in your opponent thinking, “I probably sound crazy right now?” Beyond its tactical strengths, listening makes the conversation a more fulfilling experience for you. Instead of thinking, “Wrong! He’s so wrong,” listening could provide you with an insight like, “Uncle Bob’s generation seems so untrusting of government organizations. I wonder where that comes from.” Your next response could then be a question, rather than an accusation.
  • Avoid inflammatory language – It’s 10pm. What is your goal? Truthfully, what would you like to see happen? Perhaps an ideal result has you winning the argument, converting Aunt Sue or Uncle Bob to your side of the political aisle, thus garnering an election-swinging vote for your favorite candidate at a critical time in human history. Does this sound accurate? Well, you’re not going to hurt someone into agreeing with you. So avoid using accusatory, slanderous, condescending, or otherwise absolutist language. Yes, they are fringe lunatics. No, you can’t tell them that. Avoid “you conservatives…” or “you liberals…” Avoid “news flash, hotshot,” and “wake up, princess!” Avoid “rednecks” or “tree-huggers.”  Don’t marginalize their opinions by assigning labels and don’t attempt to embarrass them by belittling their assumed ignorance. You’ll only make it worse.
  • Give the other side some credit – Most political donnybrooks take place between two diametrically opposed combatants — one liberal and one conservative. However, when asked in less contentious environments, most people describe themselves as moderate. Why is the nature of our political discussions so binary? I won’t attempt to answer that here. But I do know this is what your in-laws are expecting. Your relatives are quite comfortable with this type of duality, this black and white thinking. Pull a surprise attack and defend something that the “other side” has done well. “I don’t believe in this war, but that Obama has put together a great plan on net neutrality.” “Bush may have screwed the pooch with this Iraq mess, but it certainly took the war away from the homeland.” For whatever reason, we’re so used to conceding to polarized thinking that we forget to call a spade a spade. Try being pragmatic. It will take the conversation to a more nuanced and productive place.
  • No news is good news – Unfortunately our minds are so littered with half-baked news entertainment, we often forget the source of our information. In turn, we more frequently base arguments on headlines and blurbs rather than full articles and studies. This becomes exaggerated when our backs are against the wall. Use this to your advantage. Ask your kinsmen to source his or her information. Not to be difficult, but to gain a better understanding of how and why your relative feels the way he or she does. Perhaps focus your attention on the flaws in their news source. If you’re really ambitious, go a step further and show them a more credible place to receive information. Be honest and realistic about your own news outlets. I watch Bill Maher, Bill O’Reilly, and Rachel Maddow – none of which are disciplined sources of news (and are not pretending to be). I read the TPNN and AATTP. Pornography is better researched. It’s fun to read, sure — but we really cannot trust these corrosive candy stores of fiction as viable sources of fact. They are designed to inflame not inform. Perhaps try the BBC, Vox, factcheck.org, or The Economist. Missing the flashy, dystopian graphics and hot blondes? Guess what? News isn’t supposed to look like sports!
  • Plan the getaway – It’s 3am. This argument has lasted longer than you ever dreamed it would. Your voice is hoarse. You’re so exhausted (and perhaps inebriated) that you can’t even recall who you voted for in the last election. Aunt Sue looks like she may throw a chair. Uncle Bob has a constitution of 70% Klonopin. If you need an exit strategy, false equivalencies are a fantastic way to call it a night. “Well, there’s corruption on both sides.” “We really just need to kick all these turkeys out of office.” It’s a massive cop-out. It’s remarkably untrue. But go for it; you’ve earned it. Your relatives will buy it and there’s really no reason to cause more ire if tensions have reached a boiling point. Get some sleep. There’s always next year.

Sure, some opinions are just not worth hearing. We can’t be democratic about bad ideas. That doesn’t mean that the people who conjure these opinions aren’t deserving of our attention. We’re all products of our own life experiences and we’d like to see these experiences validated. Perhaps that’s service in a war or being victimized by a robbery. Maybe it’s a sexual orientation or a socio-economic situation. Often this is what your opponents seek: they’re not trying to be right; they’re trying to be heard.

As one organism living in a vast environment, we’re only privy to a small sample of data with which to establish our opinions. Personal experience can often prove insufficient in assessing universal truths. “Well, there can’t be global warming. We had the worst blizzard I’ve ever seen last year.” This, of course, is incorrect.

It’s important to listen to the experiences of our loved ones, but it’s also important to encourage them to seek information beyond the framework of their daily lives. Perhaps this is a more worthy aim than just belittling their stupid (and I do mean stupid) judgments and theories.

By being reactive and inflammatory, we force our family to solidify snap judgments on unfamiliar topics.  Stay cool. Help them see that there’s more than what’s in front of them. Guide them to consider that they’re not supposed to have all the answers. Explore. This year, foster reason and compassion in the ones you love. Instead of serving up some humble pie, perhaps consider baking a healthy portion of perspective and a nice side of scientific fact. Aunt Sue and Uncle Bob may think it has a funny taste, but if they don’t like it, they can go somewhere else next year. Like straight to hell! Top of the muffin to you.

Take Away

-Keep Breathing.

-Prepare a mantra.

-Don’t settle for a simple contrarian view.

-Choose to commit or abstain.

-Look beyond the anger of your loved one.

-Define your goal. Why are you having this debate?

-Silence is an asset.

-Avoid inflammatory language.

-Give the other side credit.

-Pay attention to the information’s source.

-Have an exit strategy.

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