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The Case for Arguing Politics With Your Family at Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving, skip the extra beer and take the higher ground in your family debate; chances are, your relatives will follow your example.
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An American family saying pre-Thanksgiving grace, circa 1955.

An American family saying pre-Thanksgiving grace, circa 1955.

Thanksgiving comes to American homes a little more than two weeks after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, and all available evidence suggests that the national holiday will be a complete and utter disaster in my home.

On Thursday, I'll sit down to devour turkey and stuffing with my father, who, like me registered Independent for personal and professional purposes; my mother, whose political affiliations are none of any of our business; my right-leaning political consultant brother and his Democrat wife up from Washington, D.C.; my knee-jerk lefty aunt and uncle and their high-school aged son (who constantly ridicules me for my horrible Instagram technique); my highly conservative aunt, a high-powered lawyer, and uncle, a federal judge, from New York; and my grandparents, both brilliant historians and prolific academics who've traversed the political spectrum throughout the course of their lives (our dog wrote in Marco Rubio on the ballot). To the untrained eye, our Thanksgiving table will look like we've assembled the components of a thermonuclear device set to devastate our Boston suburb — or, at the very least, the sanctity of my mother's dining room.

But, despite the fissures and cracks in the American polity that the unlikely ascension of Trump has laid bare, there will be no political apocalypse at the Keller household. This isn't to say my family is anything special. We can, and will, argue: My relatives are too talkative, my brother too smart, and myself too stubborn to leave the battlefield without a scalp.

But that's the thing: More than any long-winded rant on Facebook or shouting match with a Twitter egg, I firmly believe that fighting about politics with your family is the best way to overcome any confusion and ennui of this past election. Warring with strangers online may have left us tired and furious, but political disagreement at the dinner table can actually be a political salve — if you let it.

It's no surprise civilized discourse is inherently better for us: You need only spend five minutes getting bombarded with negativity online to savor the calmness that comes from a face-to-face engagement. It's generally understood by psychologists and social scientists that the protection and lack of consequences afforded by both anonymity and physical distance of social networks ratchets up aggressive behavior through de-individuation and personal identity loss. We'd never spew some of our online vitriol in person for the simple fact that we'd get our lights punched out — it's the reason so many infamous Internet trolls tend to be pretty docile in person. It's also the same reason you won't risk your grandfather cuffing you from across the table: No matter how much you may disagree with your extended family, they're not going to talk at you like some troll on a Reddit forum.

But apart from forcing a baseline level of civility (depending on your family's propensity for alcohol consumption), the Thanksgiving table also gives us the perfect opportunity to puncture the much-maligned "filter bubble" that sequesters us among friends and media outlets that only reaffirm our pre-existing beliefs in a networked version of confirmation bias.

It's not that America's digital flotsam is totally worthless when it comes to our political attitudes: A pre-election Pew Research Center study showed that some 20 percent of social media users changed their stance on a political issue based on a piece of content shared by a friend they trusted. But if your family is even vaguely like mine, it's a forced mingling of ideological worlds that's likely to be more productive than any adversarial engagement on Twitter or Facebook.

The Internet is simply not a place where you're likely going to soak in other peoples' perspectives, at least not when it comes to politics. A 2005 comparison of attitude changes in face-to-face and computer-mediated communication published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that the relative anonymity of digital discourse tends to foster an emphasis on social belonging rather than building interpersonal relationships that can affect long-term changes in our attitudes.

Consider recent research authored by David Broockman at Stanford University and Joshua Kalla at the University of California–Berkeley, which revealed that simple, honest conversations could help reduce bigotry and prejudice in voter attitudes. Online, we tend to flock to groups that reflect and reinforce our public, social identity rather than the nuances of our private consciousness, and those groups perpetuate de-individuation — in short, critical thinking goes out the window the minute someone is wrong on the Internet.

Of course, not every household has the same optimistic attitude toward political discourse, so a moratorium on political talk over turkey may suit some households. But the worst thing you can do is to enter with a closed mind and replicate the negativity of those online comments sections you claim to loathe. Entering your childhood home laden with pre-prepared facts and figures ready to dominate your infirm grandmother isn't just selfish and narcissistic, but a missed opportunity to wring some actual productive political discourse out of an otherwise awful year.

Except for the most fractured homes, family gatherings have a more endemic level of mutual respect than even the most ideologically diverse offices, based largely on the sheer mechanical solidarity of blood relations. The motivating impulse of your family members is to love unconditionally, beyond politics. The goal of the Thanksgiving argument isn't to dominate the ideological Philistines who are ruining our country, or rack up likes and retweets from your coven of friends with your medal-winning take—it's to be with the people you care most about.