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Seeking common ground at the Thanksgiving table

Political conversations at Thanksgiving can feel dreadful. They don’t have to.

October 5, 2023

4-minute read

Who doesn’t love a good political argument, preferably over good food? Some of us may even have grown up in households where loud political debate was (is?) the default communication mode.

But increasingly, it’s not just political perspectives that clash. Frequently, the truth itself is up for debate—and heated rhetoric can decimate friendships and divide families. Those who celebrate Thanksgiving may be dreading the awkward dinner table conversations this year.

How do we avoid that tense standoff or shouting match while still using the opportunity to reconnect and talk to family members about important issues? How can we, as progressives, have those conversations without sounding preachy and turning off potential allies? There’s an important key to doing so—and that’s to think like an organizer.

Research shows that people trust their close friends and family members when trying to figure out fact from fiction. That’s a vital role we can all play for the people in our life.

Approaching these conversations with a sense of genuine curiosity can avert the tense standoff scenario and help you find common ground you didn’t know existed. Organizers listen more than they talk—and that’s a good thing.

That angry uncle might also have fear of job loss or housing unaffordability. Maybe that cousin has been growing afraid of the increasingly erratic weather on our burning planet but has been convinced that something other than fossil fuels are to blame—or maybe they feel utterly defeated at the prospect of things ever improving. Perhaps your mom is upset about the unpredictable or unstable future for her kids or grandkids.

Even if they’re taking out that anger on people who aren’t actually responsible, it’s worth listening, even when they’re misguided, because it’s how we can identify if there’s any common ground to work from—and there often is.

Here’s a starting point: despite rising prices, workers aren’t getting their fair share. No matter how hard we work or the sacrifices we make, the cost of living is rising faster than we can keep up. Everyone—even that uncle—can see that.

Behind all the bluster, the reality is that Canada is home to multiple misinformation campaigns, led by certain politicians and extreme right organizations that feeds an ongoing suspicion that the real reason things are so difficult and unpredictable is because of whoever the scapegoat of the moment is—trans folks, migrants, Muslims, woke students, whatever. There is an entire class of people whose purpose is redirecting people’s anger away from the actual source of the problem and towards scapegoats—to hell with the very real and sometimes life-threatening consequences.

To get to a place where we can find common ground, we need to identify who’s really benefiting from inequality: the actual elites. It starts with a more careful assessment of 1) who’s really taking far more than their fair share, and 2) who’s being vilified as the “real” problem and sacrificed by cynical power brokers as collateral damage.

On schools and pronouns

Maybe you have a family member who is critical of the public school system. We can all see there’s plenty of room for improvement! Schools are underfunded, classrooms are crowded, educators are unsupported, and some of the most vulnerable kids aren’t being as well-served as all kids should be. We want a well-resourced system that works for everyone. So why are pronouns suddenly the problem we need to address?

On the carbon tax

Anger about the carbon tax might actually be about the cost of living. But is the carbon tax the main driver of that—especially since Canadians get rebates for that tax? Grocery store CEOs are raking in massive profits—is it really the fault of the person stocking shelves at barely over minimum wage?

On the high cost of housing

Housing prices—for new purchases, mortgage carrying, and rent—are at or near all-time highs, and private sector “solutions” have been a disaster. Are newcomers to Canada, who are also struggling to find affordable housing, make a decent living and put food on the table, really the culprit? No. Is it high time for governments to step up? Yes.

On extreme weather

Talking about the weather used to be something everyone could agree on, but not necessarily anymore. The weather is getting more and more erratic—from summer becoming a “fire season” in much of the country to ice storms knocking out electricity grids in the colder months, there’s a lot to worry about. We can all see what’s happening in front of us, but there are still climate change deniers in our midst. Can we imagine a world where we manage to both address the climate crisis while also making the world more just? That’s something we must all take part in—because avoiding the harsh reality about climate change won’t make those forest fires disappear.

On health care

Our health care system—one of Canadians’ most prized pieces of public infrastructure—is falling apart under the weight of decades of cuts and austerity. The pandemic just exposed the reality of under-investing in the system. More and more of us are realizing that things aren’t working, as we see family members or loved ones wait for care. Those concerns are real and legitimate—but the solution is not to increase privatized care. We need to demonstrate—and we have the evidence—why that’s not the case. Creating private health care services via the back door only siphons needed resources in the public health care system. Remember that question we raised earlier about elites? Private health care lets the rich get to the front of the line while the rest of us wait. That undermines Canada’s vision of universal health care.

Reach across our differences

As progressives, we need to be able to offer a vision of the world that isn’t just compelling—it’s irresistible. We need to understand that the anger that folks are feeling out there (and around the Thanksgiving table) is based on real issues—even if the target of that anger is, to put it charitably, misplaced.

That misdirection is often fed by politicians, capitalists, and the well-funded propagandists whose job is to keep the working majority squabbling amongst ourselves. Not only do we need to have a compelling vision of what victory looks like, we need to be able to map out how to get there—otherwise we’re just (pumpkin) pie-in-the-sky dreaming.

Of course, everyone has the right to draw boundaries—with family members or others—around conversations like this. Nobody has to participate in them. But as progressives, we also have a responsibility to try to move the needle a little bit towards justice. If we don’t, our opponents are happy to do their own organizing—at the Thanksgiving table, and beyond.

Topics addressed in this article

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