An old maxim has it that we should never discuss politics or religion at the dinner table. I recently spoke with someone whose family had resisted that maxim for years but who felt forced to adopt it in the months leading up to last year’s presidential election. The woman, a grandmother, told me how she, her children, and their spouses gather annually for an Independence Day celebration. In the past, their conversations would inevitably turn to politics. Though her views differed from those of some of her relatives, she valued the exchange as a source of insight into her loved ones’ beliefs and their reasons for them.
Yet, with the advent of the 2016 election season, as our national discourse grew increasingly volatile, she chose to institute a new rule for her family gatherings: all political discussion was off limits.
I sympathize with my friend’s decision. No one wants to invite the ravages of our public square into our family relationships. In the months since last year’s election, I’ve spoken with a father whose daughter disinvited him from her family’s Thanksgiving celebration on account of his political views. I spoke with a person whose cousin, in her mid-twenties, berated her grandmother for her voting practices before hanging up the phone. In a climate like this, it’s no wonder that my friend the grandmother decided to play it safe by banning her family’s practice of political discussions altogether. Better to leave Pandora’s box closed and on the shelf.
And yet . . .
We should not lose sight of what is lost through the decision to ban political discussions. Family discussions about sensitive topics are important. In an age increasingly marked by incivility, we need places where we can learn (or relearn) the practice of civil disagreement—that is, the art of disputing others’ ideas in ways that respect those persons’ intrinsic worth. Family life affords such a place. It is uniquely suited to serve as a training ground where its members can cultivate the virtue of civility.
That’s not to say that we should abandon all discretion and throw ourselves into the relational equivalent of a head-on collision. One must never abandon good judgment. The above maxim should serve, at best, as a temporary arrangement, not a final solution: a suspension, a stopgap, a means of buying time until the groundwork is laid to resume the conversation.
Starting Where It’s Easy
Why the family? What qualities does it have that make it an apt training ground for its members to practice civility?
I will suggest two answers. The first is this: family members bear natural affection toward each other, which provides a positive motivation to be civil. To be sure, the amount of affection differs from family to family and from person to person, yet we would have to search far indeed to find a family whose members had no affection for each other.
In fact, I believe (and have argued in my master’s thesis) that we have a moral obligation to show civility toward all people, as creatures made in the image of God. This value places a claim on us, a claim that doesn’t disappear simply because we disagree about something. Nonetheless, if you’re like me, you may find that you don’t always want to treat others civilly, especially when they’ve been uncivil to you. Those who embrace civility as a way of life may often find themselves acting from a sense of Stoic duty rather than inward desire. They may be forced to show civility through gritted teeth.
Not so with family. When the person with whom I disagree is my wife or mother, my father or sister, my child or grandparent—someone who has borne and raised me or whom I myself have raised, who has stood beside me and sacrificed for me—things are different. In addition to the knowledge that such people have worth, I find a natural desire to honor that worth. Familial affection supplies what might otherwise seem wanting in my motivation to be civil.
Keeping the Peace
In the early chapters of his novella The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis depicts hell as a place that is ever expanding—and not simply because of population growth. Rather, every time its members get annoyed or pick a fight, one or more of them simply cut ties and move away. The result is a massive city full of vacant homes and angry, isolated citizens who have shunned community.
This side of hell, family life does not permit such easy detachment. Unlike with our co-workers or even our friends, we cannot simply cut ties with our family and walk away. They will forever be our flesh and blood, and life’s hardships have a way of forcing us back together. We’re in it for the long haul and need to find a way to make our relationships, if not pleasant, then at least not toxic.
Thus our families provide a second, negative motivation for civility. It is the fact that we need one another—and not only that, but we need one another over the long haul. Thus, we fear to act in ways that might alienate us from one another, as we would if we were uncivil. The fear of toxicity and fragmentation can help keep us civil; where differences of belief arise, as they almost always do, this fear (along with its positive counterpart) makes us want to dispute those differences in ways that respect our loved ones.
Why, How, and When
Some might think this second argument works against me; it is precisely because we don’t want to alienate our families, whom we need for mutual support, that we should avoid disputing sensitive topics with them. The trouble is that such subjects have a way of rising to the surface in our family gatherings, like submerged buoys searching for air. They are on our minds and naturally enter our conversations. It is not, then, so much a question of whether we discuss them, but why, how, and when.
Sensitive political, moral, and religious questions shouldn’t be raised “for the heck of it,” as a kind of combative pastime. They do, however, merit discussion for other reasons. First, they address deeply human topics of great relevance for all of us. Accordingly, those who raise them should do so with the seriousness that these subjects, not to mention our family members, deserve.
Second, discussion can and should help family members get to know and respect each other. Sometimes, it is necessary to avoid difficult topics, but we should not forget that the need for doing so indicates a lack of peace and respect within a family. Family unity is compromised when disagreements are conspicuous but unmentionable, when family members do not feel at liberty to discuss what is most important to them with those about whom they care the most. Respect, when it is achieved, is all the more real because it does not ignore differences of opinion.
A Challenge to Lift the Ban
My proposal, then, is that those who have adopted the popular maxim against discussing politics and religion at the dinner table should view that decision as a temporary measure. To be sure, many families are unprepared to “lift the ban,” and this should grieve us. Those who can begin the difficult work of cultivating civility should do so, and others should begin laying the foundation for civil disagreement, looking forward to the time when they too can resume their conversations on difficult subjects.
What can such families do in the meantime? One idea is that they can work to build an ethic of civility in their family. Toward that end, they might fill the hole left by their former conversations by talking about civility itself: what it is, why it matters, and why family settings lend themselves to it. Those who share a common commitment to a Judeo-Christian worldview might take these conversations one step further, by discussing the biblical basis for respecting the worth of others—even when we are most tempted to disown that worth, as when disputing our deepest differences. (Those interested in pursuing topics like these may find helpful material on my blog.)
If we want to change our society’s status quo of angry deadlocks and power politics, we must cultivate the virtue of civility. Families are uniquely suited to help us toward that end. Those who learn to dispute issues civilly inside the home, stand a better chance of doing so outside it.