At holiday meals, argue less, listen more

Dwane Powell cartoon from November 2000.
Dwane Powell cartoon from November 2000.

A few years ago, Saturday Night Live framed a skit as an awards show honoring those performances that wrecked Thanksgiving, from secrets revealed to ladled-on guilt. It surfaced the shared experience of that relative who can undo the entire family’s festivities with words sharper than the carving knife, those folks who leave you feeling by day’s end like the turkey got off easy.

The slide to Thanksgiving and Christmas just accelerated, and existential holiday dread, like most kinds of anxiety these days, is ascendant. Beyond typical sniping, deep-seated moral differences have flared brighter and more intensely. While most holiday dinner guests want only to enjoy a peaceful meal, we have, on some topics, moved past a place where ignoring a comment or changing the conversation feels sufficient. When remarks challenge the basic humanity of others, their survival, and our responsibilities as a nation, failing to speak up can reinforce the narrative.

We are learning that even sound statistics won’t move most people. And, although it might feel enormously satisfying in the moment, neither will a shouting match. But an uneasy point of grace rests somewhere between a full-on retreat to the back deck — comforted by pie, chardonnay, and the knowledge that you won’t have to deal with those people again until next year — and icy silence that ends with everyone leaving early and angry. A difficult conversation in that space might not yield transformation, but it could allow you to speak with authenticity and might move the conversation a half-step farther down the road.

Part of the challenge is the people involved. With strangers, acquaintances, or like-minded friends, your stickers and march t-shirts might get you a pass. But not so fast with family.

“I think that’s just a truism. We are often most judgmental of the people who are closest to us,” said Michael Waltman, an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Waltman’s area of research is hate speech, he has written books and articles on the topic and he says what sets our current moment apart is that hate speech has been normalized.

“It’s more than just ugly at the Thanksgiving table. It tears at the fabric of our community,” he said. “(It) really needs to be responded to. You’re sort of complicit in (this) hate if you really don’t respond to it.”

He suggests emphasizing that the person is loved but that their words are unacceptable because they lead to harm and violence. Be specific but don’t expect data points to make the difference. Emphasizing how people they care about are being hurt by their words might.

Patricia Parker, chair of the Communication Department at UNC-CH, said setting aside time together with a shared commitment to create a gracious space for conversation can be helpful. It’s a process she has used in her work with teenage girls at the Ella Baker Women’s Center in Chapel Hill and in her own department, based on a model out of the Center for Ethical Leadership in Seattle.

“In the current political climate, some of our family members have become strangers,” she said. Borrowing from models developed for larger community conversations that reach across lines of difference can sometimes translate to family gatherings.

These holiday conversations are not just an antipyretic for the fever dream of the moment. One-on-one discussions might open doors to deeper understanding of systemic injustices. Or maybe no one’s opinion will shift, but there will be no assumption of silent agreement, and speaking up next time becomes more likely.

At some point, if the worst of what is experienced now recedes from bold relief to genteel watermark, the injustices will still exist but will be more easily overlooked by those who don’t care to see them. If those who are outraged don’t speak up in these days, they certainly won’t then. But those impacted will still bear the brunt.

Contributing columnist Aleta Payne writes about the intersection of faith, justice, and equity. She lives in Cary and can be reached at aletajpayne