Politics at the Dinner Table Shouldn't be Taboo

Annabel Mellor
May 14, 2016

In my family, we have a rule: no politics at family gatherings. Sometimes we stick to it but often we break it. The rule exists because, like all families, there are plenty of things we disagree on.

Dissent and discourse are at the heart of our democratic system and exist within any group of people, however like-minded they are or how much they love one another. We tend to make friends or fall for people who share our values and opinions, but we can’t choose our relatives. It’s a near certainty that we’ll disagree with at least one family member.

What happens when the feelings run deep, when the discussion becomes a vehement argument and the mood turns sour? When we're divided over the issues of the day and how to deal with them, how can we have those conversations and still be able to gather around the table for dinner afterwards?

The current political climate has sown discord within many formerly harmonious families. In the UK, the EU referendum lurks on the horizon. People who may have grown accustomed to agreeing on key points and voting the same way have found themselves on opposing sides of this seemingly all-consuming debate. The very nature of a referendum – in or out, yes or no – polarises opinion and leaves little room for the nuance and mutual respect of the middle ground.

In the US, the race for the party nomination has had a similar effect. Lifelong Democrats are split between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, with compelling arguments and outspoken supporters on both sides. And it’s not hard to imagine a Republican family treating the uncle who supports Donald Trump as a pariah.

I’m increasingly convinced that my family’s blanket ban on discussing politics is not only futile but also unhelpful. A Twitter poll asking the question, “Do you discuss politics with your family?”, found that out of 58 respondents, just 4% replied with “never”. The most popular response, with a 40% share, was “sometimes”. Although this is a small sample size, it suggests that the majority of families do engage in some political discussion.

Why bother? If our goal is to persuade the other person that we’re right, we’re almost certain to fail. However, voicing our opinions can help us to clarify our thoughts and construct a coherent argument. Moreover, learning how to frame and present your ideas within the relative safety of a family group provides invaluable preparation for holding forth on complex issues in a public setting and having measured, respectful debates.

 

Fielding questions, countering arguments and defending our views are the best ways to work out where we stand on an issue and how much conviction we have in our opinions. I love Twitter but it can be an echo chamber: it’s tempting and easy to remain in a cosy bubble of consensus and engage solely with people who share my views. Family discussions are the perfect antidote and a good place to practise tolerating, listening to and learning from people with differing viewpoints.

Some of the strongest disagreements occurs between generations. It’s easy to dismiss older family members’ opinions as products of senescence or institutional racism. But they may bring something else to the table. For instance, there’s a lot that younger politicians and members of the public can learn from the generation that rebuilt the country from the ashes of the Second World War and founded the welfare state. Meanwhile, each crop of idealistic young voters enters the political sphere convinced that they know how to solve the world’s problems. But as President Obama reminded us at the Town Hall event during his recent visit to the UK, solving the big issues takes time. He expounded the importance of “fighting for change that you may not live to see, but that your children will live to see.”  

His predecessor, Abraham Lincoln, once said: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” Having in-depth conversations with people who have contrasting views can help us to understand them, and we often find more common ground than we expect. After interacting with family members who I thought held fundamentally different beliefs, I was surprised to find that we agreed on what needs fixing – just not on how to fix it.

Some families may already be adept at sitting down to share their views and listen respectfully to one another. But the majority will be well acquainted with the blazing row at a birthday party fuelled by too much warm prosecco. It’s often frustrating to discuss politics with someone when you’ll never see eye-to-eye with them, and talking to someone who just doesn’t care can be even more maddening. But in the interests of polishing our debating skills, boosting political engagement and paving the way to world peace, we should keep squabbling. Personally, I’ll be pushing to have my family rule revoked.