Thanksgiving 2016: Time for an Unconventional Playbook

If 2016 has taught us anything, it’s to screw conventional wisdom. I mean, the Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years, so that pretty much sums it up. And here we are, as 2016 winds down, contemplating Thanksgiving. We can’t help but think of all the things for which we are grateful – family, health, happiness, all that good stuff. We think of the culinary spread we’ll mow down tomorrow – the turkey, gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, candied yams, cranberry sauce. We think of the family we love, but rarely get to see, and all the things that we’ll get to share with them, like the story of a child’s first steps, or that time Uncle Larry built a potato gun and almost took off me head, or the fear that Uncle Roger brings up his crackpot views on politics.

It’s at politics that the conversation comes to a screeching halt. It’s kind of like those traffic lights in the middle of the expressway. Why couldn’t those geniuses of civil engineering have built an on-ramp instead?  When it comes to political discussions over the holidays, most people try to just steer clear, and avoid the potential multi-car pile up over the dinner table. At least, that’s the conventional thinking.

But let’s take a step back and consider where we are. The country is as divided as it’s been in generations, and both sides live in very different realities. Some call it the echo chamber effect, others the social media bubble, or the cultural divide, but regardless of what you call it, the reason it exists is clear: We’re not forced to talk to people anymore. We’re also not forced to listen. Sure, we’re connected to vastly more people today than ever before, thanks to technology, but think about who those people are. My friends list is over 90% liberal, and I live in a red state. Not to mention that most everything I see on Facebook is left-leaning as a result of its algorithms, only acting to reinforce my existing beliefs. Today, instead of chatting over the fence with my die-hard Republican neighbor or getting a beer after work with Tim-of-20-guns fame, my social needs are met by people who more closely share my ideology. Not only do I deprive myself of those opposing viewpoints, but without a personal (and thereby emotional) connection to people of divergent political beliefs, my cultural blinders have become ever narrower. That’s how these two realities have emerged. That’s a big part of why we are so divided.

So, what can be done? I believe it starts with listening. In particular, listening to people with whom we may happen share differences. Where could those people with whom we respectfully disagree be found? Hmmm…that’s a toughy. And if we could find these people, how could we have any assurance whatsoever that they wouldn’t care less about us or our ideas? Not sure yet? Ok, here’s one more clue. If we could find these people and somehow be assured that these people respected us, how could we ever be brought to sit down across from one another and explore the differing ways in which we see the world? Still drawing a blank?

It’s not that I’m suggestion kicking down grandma’s front door this Thanksgiving with guns blazing election talk. It’s that I’m suggesting doing the unconventional thing and actually having a respectful and thoughtful ideological discussion, given this very unique and fleeting opportunity. I know, the conventional wisdom to avoid politics at all costs springs from people’s inarguable urge to keep the peace, particularly when it comes to family. And I understand that concern; but I genuinely believe that, if handled well, we actually can have our pumpkin pie and eat it too. If people who share unconditional love and respect with one another can’t have this conversation, what chance do we have of it taking place with the faceless mob that falls to our left or our right? I don’t know about you, but for me, my family is the only hope I have in connecting with and understanding that other reality. If I don’t talk to them about it, I’ve got nowhere else to go.

So, here’s my advice. Let everybody get their first plate down and as you’re getting up for seconds, make a toast. Toast to everything you share as a family – to love, to memories, and to Aunt Marla’s bangin’ pecan pie. Toast to your differences – to the different teams everyone loves to root for or against, to the different jobs everyone has, and to the different ways that everyone sees the world, whether you agree with them or not. Before ending your toast, let people know that if they are serious about healing the country, we all need to listen to each other, even if we don’t agree on everything. And that you, for one, have an open ear.

Or, maybe, as is the case with my family, old Uncle Roger will make a politically charged quip to no one in particular and everyone at the same time. Instead of embracing the awkward silence that inevitably follows, speak up. Not in defense of your position or his, but in concern for the gaps that have grown between people like you and Roger, or people like you both and the other half of the country that disagrees with you. They’re not easy to have, but we should embrace these conversations, since they are so few and far between anymore. And it is through these conversations that we might begin to find common ground and bridge this gaping divide. 

Or, maybe you’re someone who would be more agreeable to tackling the great cultural divide of our age one-on-one after dinner, once the tryptophan hits. Whatever the case, we cannot continue drifting apart. Family will always be family, but in a day and age when even the most long standing institutions are being questioned, the idea of family is even beginning to change. A conversation with those you love and care about, one that starts with an expression of respect for them despite whatever differences you share, is a good first step onto that bridge to a more unified tomorrow. And remember, it’s not about changing their minds. Sure, you should express your perspective and your beliefs. But do also listen, because it is our own minds that we should seek to expand.

Contributed by: 2Pac Jones

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