Why talking politics on Thanksgiving could help us emerge from our political bubbles

Amy Blackstone, University of Maine

Originally published in the Bangor Daily News on November 22, 2016.

This year, nearly 49 million Americans will travel to visit family and friends over the Thanksgiving weekend. These gatherings, typically associated with gratitude and love, also can be stressful. In the wake of one of our most contentious presidential elections, the usual Thanksgiving angst may be multiplied.

Holiday gatherings may mean emerging from the safety of our “ political bubbles.” Since the 1980s, we have increasingly sorted ourselves into isolated groups, avoiding those who differ from us politically. This sorting, which happens geographically and online, means we’re less likely to engage in difficult political conversations, and many of us avoid discussing politics altogether.

You might say avoiding politics is the American way. Sociologist Nina Eliasoph says not talking politics — and shaming those who do — comes from our strong values of civic etiquette and unpretentiousness. While living in political bubbles makes our everyday lives happier, it also means we miss the chance to hear viewpoints that could transform our perspectives, and the resulting groupthink can be disastrous. Indeed, like-minded groups grow more extreme and entrenched the more they isolate themselves.

While recent events have caused some Americans to retreat further into their bubbles, others have been galvanized to emerge from them. An increase in hate crimes combined with news of President-elect Donald Trump’s appointment of a white nationalist as chief strategist has many wanting to go beyond just “getting through” holiday dinners and actually engage those with whom they disagree. But to be effective, these conversations must happen in a meaningful way.

Honest conversation can only be had when we share a basic understanding of reality. The proliferation of fake news doesn’t make this easy. Understanding the sources on which we rely for information is as important as ever. We also must acknowledge that some conversations cannot be had safely. Violence by white supremacists and others who target people based on their immigration status, race, religion, sexual orientation or gender is real and must be taken seriously.

For those in a safe position, specific strategies and resources can help as we begin the difficult conversations that we should be having with one another.

First, research shows that relying on our moral compass to appeal to those from across the aisle is not effective. While liberals are typically swayed by arguments framed in maintaining fairness and protection from harm, conservatives are more likely to be compelled by focusing on in-group loyalty, respect for authority and protection of purity. Considering the values of those with whom we disagree is more effective than attempting to persuade from our moral position.

Making political discussion less taboo helps, too. Residents in several cities across the country engage those outside their political bubbles regularly through an initiative called The Village Square, which aims to promote civil dialogue on divisive issues by bringing people together over a meal. The Village Square supports cities who wish to “start a square,” and the model can be applied by anyone hoping to defy the trend that they’ve dubbed “ fact-free partisan food fights.”

In Bangor, the University of Maine Humanities Center hosts a series called Think & Drink, which works much like The Village Square. Residents gather over food and drink to participate in a facilitated public conversation. Series organizers say the series is designed to “ spark provocative discussions about big ideas.” The 2016 Think & Drink series just came to a close last week, but we should see news about the 2017 series soon.

Another way to reach outside our bubbles is to become involved in civic life. In Bangor, our new mayor, Joe Baldacci, recently invited residents to participate “on any number of citizen committees … from the Parks, the Board of Appeals, Assessment Review, Planning, and a host of other important committees.”

None of this will be easy. But one thing we’ve learned these past months is that we must listen to each other. Political dialogue may not be the most palatable thing on the menu this holiday season, but with the addition of good food and loved ones I hope we’ll challenge ourselves to incorporate a dose of it into our meals. The health of our nation depends on it.

Amy Blackstone is professor of the sociology at the University of Maine in Orono. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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