A Meaningful Thanksgiving

The impeachment proceedings to investigate allegations of impropriety in the Donald Trump presidency will impact many American households this Thanksgiving. Families will be confronted by political tensions of a profound nature this year. There is no sugar coating it, there is a base of people who believe Trump’s lies and the absurd defenses offered for his corrupt acts.

Unanimous consensus, among intelligence agencies and the Republican-led US Senate Intelligence Committee, that Russia was responsible for election interference in the 2016 presidential election has not been able to convince some people of the criminal reality; do not let arguing with those inoculated from the truth spoil or interrupt the gathering.

I use Thanksgiving dinner as a classic example for dealing with conflict in the classes I teach. Each year my students describe fears about family get-togethers escalating into heated disputes. I have offered the coursework as an excuse for students needing to avoid the event, “if you need to, just tell your families that your mean instructor assigned extra work for the break…”

It turns out that families can disagree on a great many things. Sometimes they can agree to disagree, sometimes not–when bigoted aunts and uncles offer to “pray the gay away,” or insist “you’re disowned until you start dating your own race” go too far.

Sometimes students returning home for the holiday present to their families the first evidence of “brainwashing” and an “exposure to a liberal education.” In some cases the antipathy goes both ways. Since the 2016 election some students report avoiding festivities because, “their fears about the consequences of a Trump presidency, as well as a general disdain for family members who voted for him, are still very real.”

In the week before Thanksgiving I lead discussion on morals and values in America. “Ignorance is bliss” provides an entry into political narratives and the role of truth. Sadly, it also presents an ugly introduction to politics, because the current criminal in the White House seems to show that lying and denying are part of a code that earns millions of votes.

Trump is a symptom of a deeper gap between Americans and the truth. Avoiding the lessons of genocide and the role it played in “discovering” the Americas is indeed a key part of selling Thanksgiving itself. Most of the Founding Fathers were slave owners, all were white men, and no women were full citizens until August 18, 1920, with the passage of the 19th Amendment (still waiting for equal pay for equal work).

Gentle humor can make a point at a family table (“I guess this turkey wished it were a convicted war criminal like the three US military members Trump just pardoned”), though backing off at signs of a big defensive reaction is best. “Sure,” you might note, “plenty of debate about this even in the militaryitself.”

It is a shame we’ve reached this point; I cannot believe that people should feel fear over talking with loved ones about what matters to them.

There is opportunity, if we can listen, discuss, problem solve, make efforts to find mutually satisfying solutions, and demonstrate shared respect; coming together can be a source of unity and an embrace of division. There are lessons from my fields of peace studies and conflict transformation that can help divided societies and divided families and affirm difference can provide strength.

One great first step is making and enforcing ground rules. Clearly defined expectations and enforcement can outline respectful communication and promote shared values. Another option is to be strategic, are you most interested in emotional satisfaction (feeling good), process satisfaction (participating in a way that feels good), or substantive satisfaction (obtaining the desired outcome)? Keeping priorities in mind is a good way to make sure that actions are aligned to goals, if “no politics allowed” makes that possible—do it.

If emotional or process comfort is most important, then reflect these motivations in your statements and actions, even if you need to let some egregious statements stand (“Trump is a great guy and victim of fake news”). Avoidance is the most commonly used method for managing conflicts in the U.S. and it serves a strategic purpose, but it does have an opportunity cost.

If substantive satisfaction is most important, you should still focus your aims. Keep in mind that your goal may not match with the goals of others. If you’re trying to convince your family, then reflect on what is most likely to work. Respectful communication and active listening are your greatest assets, because you’re unlikely to change their minds with superior evidence or insults; changing minds is achieved by addressing underlying values and interests. Remember that initial lesson that ignorance is bliss; many people are convinced they are right when they’ve been misled.

Few of us are ever changed by someone “calling us out,” but rather by calling in, making connection. “Uncle Al,” you might say, “you served in Gulf War I and I want to respect your sacrifice. Do you think Donald Trump, born rich and who skipped out on Vietnam from fake bone spurs, deserves the support of honorable veterans like you? I gotta say, I respect you and not him, to be blunt.” Then listen respectfully to Uncle Al. You made your point and do not make it again.

In the long run the deep wounds and scars will need to be treated. It will require a return to basic values and trust. Your Thanksgiving is meaningful if you spend it with loved ones and find things to appreciate, Trump wins when his terrorism takes that away from you—don’t let that happen.

Wim Laven has a PhD in International Conflict Management, he teaches courses in political science and conflict resolution, and is on the Executive Boards of the International Peace Research Association and the Peace and Justice Studies Association.