"Never talk about religion or politics at the dinner table," the saying goes; these conversations can ruin holidays like Thanksgiving. But while avoiding these subjects may make sense for individuals, it's terrible for the country -- and when we do engage in tough topics, we commit small acts of patriotism.
No, I'm not saying that discussing politics at Thanksgiving is a service on the level of, say, troops returning from Afghanistan. But just as voting is understood by the politically informed to be a civic responsibility, so is talking about the issues on which we vote. After all, these issues are combustible because they're important, so it matters when we discuss them with people who are important to us.
Indeed, for many, Thanksgiving is one of the only times when we encounter people we care about with whom we also disagree. Throughout the rest of the year, most of us seek news from sources that affirm our worldview, read articles shared by like-minded friends that validate our perspective, and laugh (or cry) at social gatherings about how the other side has lost it. Ultimately, we end up in feedback loops, a phenomenon that political scientists call "epistemic closure," and those loops affect everyone: Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and progressives, people who agree with us and people who are insane.
When we do engage with opposing opinions, it's often through impersonal mediums like Facebook or newspaper comment sections. In those anodyne forums, it's easy to forget that there are real human beings on the other side of arguments, easy to sidestep the merits of someone's point of view and simply call her a "right-wing nut job," a "left-wing socialist," a "radical," a "racist." Which, of course, isn't to say that our ideological opponents might not actually be nutjobs, socialists, radicals, racists -- or whatever else.
But even so, it is valuable to engage in person with people with whom we disagree, if for no other reason than because face to face, we cannot ignore their humanity. In this way, hearing positions we oppose espoused by people who we love can even act as a kind of tether, a human face to remember when we listen to that incendiary conservative radio host or read that irritating liberal blogger.
In that vein, I say: Progressives, engage your conservative family members. Tell them you accept their apology for endlessly pounding the drum of Benghazi when even the Republican House now admits that there was nothing scandalous there. Reassure them that the president is wholly within his authority to defer deportations on 5 million undocumented immigrants -- but encourage them to demonstrate really loudly against this executive action so that Democrats can win the Latino vote for a generation.
And conservatives, please, challenge your lefty family members. Boast proudly of your well-fought electoral victories this fall. Point out how, despite all its populist propaganda, the White House has still managed to deliver only full economic recovery for the country's wealthiest, while everyone else struggles. Embarrass the liberals with jokes about the administration's screw-ups on Obamacare, Iraq and the Veterans Administration. Encourage them to keep overreaching so that your party can take the White House in 2016.
Whatever side you're on, remember that if you're sitting one on one with someone you disagree with, your goal is to learn more about their point of view -- but if you've got other people watching the debate, your goal is to win over people who haven't made up their minds or who have less strong opinions.
In the end, we don't need to avoid difficult conversations altogether just to avoid letting them go too far. The boundaries of tasteful dialogue aren't as hard to navigate as they might seem: just speak with respect and know when to stop, and remember that relationships are more important than righteousness. If we keep those simple guidelines in mind, we can fulfill our obligations as citizens and family members.
It might even end up being fun.