How To Talk Politics at Thanksgiving Without Causing a Family Feud: The key is humility and a genuine willingness to learn

This piece was written for, and appeared earlier this week in, Discourse Magazine. See it there at

As you pack your bags for your Thanksgiving trip, you may be starting to worry about that “crazy” uncle, extreme aunt, or other sour relative whose political views are so different from your own that anxiety turns expectations of what should be a happy family gathering into the grim anticipation of impending doom.

Many people resort to telling their children, siblings, and spouses not to discuss certain topics at the family gathering for fear of setting off those relatives—or just giving them an excuse to rant about whatever their cockamamie view is that day. Total avoidance is the only way they can see to keep the peace and prevent the polarization that exists across the country from leading to acrimony at their own feast.

The suggestion that we should not discuss the controversial topic du jour is now often defended with claims about how it is uncivil or disrespectful to disagree with anyone or to bring up controversial issues that are sure to encourage disagreement. Despite the popularity of this view, it is a mistake.

Not only is the avoidance policy a fool’s game, destined to fail regardless, but it is also misguided from the outset. There will always be disagreements. If we don’t disagree about defunding the police, Black Lives Matter, this president’s immorality, that president’s idiocy, or the government handling of COVID-19, we’ll find something else to disagree about. Trying to suppress disagreement simply causes festering animosity.

The reason the animosity festers is that if you refuse to allow yourself to disagree with someone, you’re essentially accepting that they are not capable or worthy of honest discourse. You might think Uncle Dan can’t be reasoned with; he’s an imbecile, so why even try? Thinking in those terms leads not to acceptance or love of the other, but to disgust, and that disgust is often hard to shake. So disagreement will emerge one way or another, and trying to prevent it is likely to make the disagreement that finally erupts more acrimonious and less civil.

Importantly, though, honest disagreement is not uncivil or disrespectful in the first place. Indeed, it’s a sign of respect. If my 3-year-old told me that I was wrong to think a particular politician is terrible because that politician is actually quite wonderful, I would not argue with him. Why? Because as a 3-year-old, he is simply not in a position to have a reasonably well-thought-out view of the matter. 3-year-olds deserve respect, but not for their political views.

Uncle Dan, I assume, is not a toddler, but if I refuse to argue with him about a politician, I am treating him as I would my 3-year-old. This is the opposite of respect! To show respect for Dan, I must be willing to engage with him. I must recognize that he, like me, is a person with his own views and his own reasons for those views, and that he is also capable of changing his mind, like any rational being. Yes, disagreement is a sign of respect.

This Thanksgiving, I encourage you to treat those family members with whom you disagree with respect. Engage them, not with vitriol, but with curiosity and an eagerness to learn—if not to learn how you’re mistaken, at least to learn why they think differently from you. Assume they have reasons because they probably do. If they don’t, perhaps you can uncover the etiology of their belief instead. In discussion, maybe they can also come to understand why you think the way you do. Indeed, you might both learn something about yourselves and each other.

I can’t say this is an easy task. It can be difficult—in part because of the anxiety we often manufacture around such discussions and in part because it requires allowing ourselves to be intellectually and emotionally vulnerable. You cannot go into a discussion like this holding steadfast to your own beliefs about the topic at hand. If you think they are wrong, remember that they are also thinking you are wrong. In fact, maybe you’re both wrong. You won’t know unless you are willing to take them seriously, treating them as a reasonable person who can be corrected—and recognizing that you also may need correction.

When you approach a discussion this way—recognizing that you and Uncle Dan are both due the respect of disagreement and are both capable of being wrong as well as capable of being corrected—you can learn more about the world, as well as more about each other. Admittedly, you may not change each other’s minds; perhaps after extensive discussion you each understand where the other is coming from but still think the other is clearly wrong. Yet even if neither of you changes your beliefs about the topic, you will have learned more about each other!

Increased mutual understanding through discourse is extremely helpful—and exactly what we need in these polarized times. The same model of respectful disagreement that works among individuals can work for society as a whole. It can lead to more compassion for each other and a happier Thanksgiving feast with love and fellow-feeling—something to be truly thankful for.

Watch me discussing these ideas on C-Span Sunday morning:

An Irony of Identity Politics

There is a rich irony brewing in our culture. On the one hand, people often feel uncomfortable weighing in on issues involving groups to which they do not belong. For example, a man might feel uncomfortable expressing his opinions about abortion, particularly while in groups populated by many women. On the other hand, people are often content to point out when members of groups to which they do not belong express treacherous opinions. It is not uncommon, for instance, for a man to reprimand a pro-life woman for setting back the interests of women by defending her pro-life views. The cultural uptake of these two impulses is, I think, both contradictory and immoral.

Legal scholar Mari Matsuda wrote that “[t]hose who are oppressed in the present world can speak most eloquently of a better one” (346). I think it is because our culture has bought into this line of thought that we have succumbed to the first impulse. A man might think to himself that he should not voice his opinions about abortion, especially among women, because women possess authority to discuss the issue that men lack. The oppression women have faced as women places them in a better position than men to speak of a better world when it comes to abortion politics.

The second impulse, that of rebuking ideological dissidents in oppressed groups, is rationalized in different ways. Some think that a pro-life woman deserves censure when she expresses her views because she has a duty to be a good role model for other women; others think it is because she has a duty to show gratitude to feminists who have made her current way of life possible by continuing their activism; still others think it is because she must be in solidarity with other women by expressing views most other women subscribe to rather than the ones she does express.

Whatever the merits of the rationales for these impulses, they contradict one another. The first impulse cautions against participating in debates one is not qualified to participate in. The second impulse recommends that we participate in those debates. The man who tells a woman she harms other women by expressing her pro-life views has taken a stand on the issue of abortion, since he thinks the pro-life position is harmful to women. When asked moments later about his own views on abortion, he may insist that “it’s not his place to discuss issues that primarily concern women.” But he’s already taken a stand.

These impulses not only contradict one another, but are also each immoral. The strongest case for the immorality of the second impulse finds itself in the vulnerability of oppressed people. Women are already oppressed, so why should we go out of our way to make the lives of pro-life women harder than they already are by treating them as defectors? There is a line between criticizing the arguments advanced by a pro-life woman and criticizing the pro-life woman herself on the grounds that she does not live up to some ideal that women should live up to. While the former is always permissible, I think the latter rarely is. Isn’t feminism, at its core, about liberating women from the oppressive expectations of others after all?

The first impulse, by contrast, is immoral because by censoring your own views about certain matters, you make it harder for others to get to the truth of the matters in question. Making the world a better place is a collective effort, and we need to pool together the best intellectual resources at our disposal to enable us to make it better. Sometimes, the best intellectual resources when it comes to reasoning about the abortion issue will include the ideas of men.

But what of the thought that men are unqualified to reason about the abortion issue because they have not been subject to the oppressions women face? Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy once observed that the views of outsiders have historically been crucial to helping insiders make sense of their circumstances. Take, for instance, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. As a Frenchman, Tocqueville produced valuable insights about American society and the relationship between industrialization and democracy––insights that are studied to this day in the academy. Why couldn’t it, therefore, be the case that men could produce valuable insights about the abortion controversy as outsiders of womanhood?

When our contributions to public discourse could move us closer to a better world, we should contribute. This requires that we overcome our impulse to bite our tongues when we have that nagging feeling that it is not our place to share our views about certain matters. Men who have thought carefully about abortion should feel free to express their views; whites who have thought carefully about affirmative action should feel free to express theirs; and so on. As I said before, making our world a better place is a collective effort. And the efforts of all those who have thought carefully about these issues are needed to make our world better––not just the efforts of those whom you would expect to have vested interests in these issues.

We need also to ignore the impulse to reprimand those in oppressed groups who deign to flout the ideological lines their groups seem committed to. This is in part because we need people to feel comfortable volunteering their perspectives so we may make our world better, and in part because it is wrong to place expectations on vulnerable people to behave a certain way when it is expectations of this very kind that lead to their vulnerability in the first place.

It is tempting to succumb to these impulses, especially when we live in a culture that ceaselessly seeks to rationalize them. But acting on both impulses pulls us in opposite directions. We pride ourselves on staying in our lanes when we remain silent as debates concerning people unlike us rage on yet take it upon ourselves to identify and reprimand treasonous behavior by those unlike us. And acting on both impulses impoverishes us with respect to our goal of collaborating with one another to make our world better than it is. It seems we have some unlearning to do. But until we have done it, we will remain suspended in the irony that is modern identity politics.

Thanks to Andrew Jason Cohen for helpful feedback on an earlier version of this post.

On immigration

I was recently part of a discussion about immigration that prompted some thoughts. I thought I’d share them.

First, I’ll note that too many people think about immigration as an issue about immigrants alone. That is a mistake. See Chandran Kukathas’s new book, Immigration and Freedom, for a very well worked out argument, but here just note that limits on immigration are essentially limits on us—those of us in the country to whom a potential immigrant wants to come. If you are a US citizen and want to marry someone from outside the US, you’ll have to deal with the government to see about the possibility of that person coming here. You may want to live in the US with this person, but whether you will have the freedom to do so depends on immigration law. Similarly, of course, if you want to form a business partnership with someone from abroad. Or if you want to hire someone from abroad. Your freedom to marry or work with non-citizens is limited by immigration law. That’s really just scratching the surface of the issue, but its enough to show that limits to liberty caused by immigration restrictions can affect any of us.

Some will say that the loss of freedom is a price worth paying—it is, after all, a freedom to do something many will not want to do. (Perhaps failing to fully grasp the truth that a government empowered to stop others from doing what they want is a government empowered to stop you from doing what you want.) It’s true that if we allow too many immigrants to enter a country, they can dramatically alter our lives. (Of course, if this is true of countries, it’s also true of local jurisdictions, but I’ll leave that aside.) If 50 million immigrants from a country with an authoritarian government and an “authoritarian culture” (where everyone prefers living under an authoritarian government) came en masse to a country of 300 million, no matter how liberal the latter country was until then, their arrival may will lead to a change in the culture. (I take the basic idea for this argument from Hrishikesh Joshi’s excellent “For (Some) Immigration Restrictions“—the only thing I remember reading in the last few years that seriously made me doubt my pro-immigration stance.)

This worry about an immigrant group altering a country’s culture rather than being assimilated into it doesn’t seem very powerful in the normal course of American politics—a large enough group (50 million, eg) is unlikely to come in a short enough time span to have the effect. If that is wrong, though, we should ask whether such a group would want to alter their new home. It seems more likely that most people who move to a new place move there thinking it—as it is—has something worth moving for and so would not want to change it.

Some may think that these things are not matters of choice, that people from other cultures are simply different from Americans (or Americans and Europeans, from whom so much of our political culture is derived) and so can’t help themselves. The idea would be that if they were raised in an authoritarian or socialist regime, they can’t stop being authoritarian or socialist at heart. This idea, though, requires an unsubstantiated essentialism: Americans (and perhaps Europeans) are essentially freedom-lovers, individuals willing to do whatever is necessary to get ahead in liberal marketplaces and everyone else is … not. They are essentially authoritarian, socialist, or whatever is the dominant way of living in their culture of origin. Again, though, this claim is unsubstantiated. Indeed, it is contradicted by the millions of immigrants already present in the US (and Europe) who come to adopt the culture of their new homes.

Perhaps a more plausible view is that while culture does not make individual essences, it does causally affect people as a contingent but important matter with lasting effects. The thought would be that though they can adapt, people from other cultures are statistically unlikely to be suited for liberal markets and countries as they are and would likely take too long to change, if they change at all. There may be some truth to this claim, but without further investigation, it seems incomplete. There are, after all, historical and international events that affect people in many ways. Ignoring the history of imperialism and colonialism, for example, is likely to leave a lot out of the discussion. Ignoring these sort of world altering events and processes would basically be to essentialize cultures—failing to recognize that they are what they are due to causal factors and they can also change . Like the essentializing of individuals, this essentializing of cultures is unsubstantiated.

The fact is cultures change. I’d go further and say they either change or they die. They may die slow deaths, but stagnation is death nonetheless. Once this is recognized, much of the rest becomes less significant. We should embrace change and hope it will lead to growth. Indeed, with more people with different backgrounds, skill sets, and beliefs, our markets grow and make us all better off. As our markets grow, so does our culture.

Embrace change.  Embrace pro-immigration policies.