I wrote recently about the problem of our overly politicized world today and the increasing inability to catch a game or watch the highlight reel without hearing a commentator’s “expert” political opinion. As we gear up for Thanksgiving, this same problem appears to be invading our holiday meals.
At countless dinner tables across the country, our fraught political moment will translate into tense conversations and gross disagreements. NPR today aired an interview discussing a recent Teen Vogue article titled “It’s Your Responsibility to Challenge Bigoted Relatives Over the Holidays.” Vice shared a piece about overcoming your family’s racist tendencies: a woke manifesto to help implicitly racist white people prepare their implicitly (or explicitly) racist white family to meet their partners of color.
As far as the first piece goes, it’s at least correct in spirit: when someone is in error, we should work to correct that error. It is an act of mercy and a Christian duty to help those in error move from error to truth. We must “correct them in love,” as St. Ignatius instructs in the Spiritual Exercises—and where better to start than with our family, to whom we are ineluctably bound in love (and forced into proximity for the holidays).
As far as the second piece goes, the thing that strikes me most is that the vast majority of the advice is not related to race, but to basic human decency: “not touching Black people’s hair” applies to anyone you might meet for the first time. Preparing your partner by letting them know your family’s habits and traditions is wise and appropriate regardless of who he or she is. The racial difference might make this first meeting more awkward and so the act of preparing your partner more valuable—but overlaying common manners with racial significance distracts from the fundamental importance of manners and distracts from more pertinent problems related to race.
These are two examples of what has become a genre: “You’re going to fight at Thanksgiving. Get ready.” This new genre is just another piece of evidence in the increasing collapse of civil society.
The vanishing virtue of trust has disrupted even our family lives.
That is the startling thing about these articles: the lack of trust. “I know my family is full of racists. I know my family members are going to be saying all kinds of bigoted things. I better get ready now.” Even if we set aside the problem of a utopistic hope for the eradication of all racism and bigotry—the built-in suspicion here is troubling on its own. And this suspicion is borne out of our crumbling associational life.
Absent associations, we are not friends and neighbors together seeking the flourishing of our families and communities. We are, instead, isolated individuals each seeking our own wellbeing, immediately suspicious of those strangers with strange opinions. “He voted Hillary” and “he voted Trump” pits man against man, regardless of whatever else these gentlemen may have in common.
While civic associations began to crumble, there at least remained family life. But unfortunately, it seems that busy schedules, addiction to screens, and increased mobility for work and school have resulted in eliminating associational life even in the home. The length of the family dinner has decreased from 90 minutes to twelve, and its frequency has been declining with each generation. It is one thing to lose the Rotary Club, but another crisis altogether to lose the family dinner table.
But for all this, Thanksgiving appears to be a bastion of hope. A holiday dedicated exclusively to eating together, this dinner table does not appear to be vanishing as Thanksgiving remains the busiest travel holiday. Alack and alas, then, that so many of us are heading to Thanksgiving dinner suspicious of our relatives—and without other family habits and practices, overcoming suspicion, restoring trust, will not be easy.
It will be a long and arduous process to restore the associational realm in our homes and communities. Building trust is not easy and will not happen quickly. But we can contribute to this process, each of us around the Thanksgiving dinner table, by intentionally trying to limit our suspicions of our family members and reaching for better conversations.
Instead of going to dinner preparing to expose bias and bigotry, let us go to dinner prepared to discuss…anything else. For now, in our fragmentary and suspicious age, let us keep politics away from the Thanksgiving dinner table and strive, instead, to get to know one another, to see what we share even across our political differences.
Our politics remain sharply polarized and our social life fragmentary. Our family life is falling victim to these same woes. But we can refuse to suffer this fragmentation if we work to reinvigorate our interests beyond politics. For after-dinner conversation, consider arguing about the evils of preferring football to baseball, or Bronte to Austen, or Tchaikovsky to Dvorak. That might lock you and a family member into a common project, a common pursuit—rather than a common distrust.