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Your Guide to Holiday Sanity: Talking Politics in a Bipartisan Family

Today's post is by Sophia Raday, the author of Love in Condition Yellow: A Memoir of An Unlikely Marriage.

RadayAt my book talks I often show side-by-side photos of my husband and me. In mine, I am getting arrested by campus police at a divestment protest at Stanford University. The police are using a “pain compliance” technique on me, twisting my arm behind my back and pressing my hand over in a very effective wrist-crunch. [Ed's note: you can see this photo on Sophia's web site.] In the next photo, my husband is standing in front of the Oakland Police Department’s SWAT helicopter flashing a thumbs up sign and a big grin. 

Perhaps needless to say, our differences run along major fault lines in the American body politic. He is a Republican; I am a Democrat. He is a hawk; I am a dove. He likes Costco; I like food co-ops. He reads military history; I read poetry. He admires Teddy Roosevelt; I swoon for Obama. You get the idea.

I know what most of you are thinking: What do you do when you talk politics at the dinner table? How do you keep things from getting ugly? No, we don’t have a skirmish line running down the middle of our kitchen table. In fact, we talk about politics regularly and very amicably. Of course it didn’t start out that way. We argued a lot during our courtship. A lot. But eventually that got really tiring. And kind of boring. We had to figure out how to share our views or break up. And we really loved each other.  So, with some help from a good couples counselor, we stopped arguing and started connecting.

The trick is adopting an attitude not of antagonism but of curiosity.  Imagine you are an exchange student exploring a foreign country whose customs and history you would like to learn about. Your curmudgeonly conservative Uncle Frank? He’s Bora Bora. Your strident vegan niece Madison? She’s Uzbekistan.

This idea is not just based on our personal success as a couple but also on cutting edge cognitive science. George Lakoff is a linguist and writer who has come up with a very elegant case for how to explain the differences between conservative and liberal world views in the United States. Each side tells a morality story, with one applying a “strict father” family model (government as father and citizens as children), and the other a “nurturant parent” model. As people relying on a (usually unconscious) strict father family narrative, conservatives value self-reliance above all else. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to believe government should act as a nurturing, supportive parent. They consequently, value empathy above all else.

I think Lakoff is on to something profound. And I’ve found there’s even more. The story of why Uncle Frank cleaves to his political views and why Niece Madison embraces hers is a hidden treasure trove. Each of us has mapped our particular narrative of the world – shaped by all our life experiences and influences - onto political issues, usually unconsciously. This means that when we talk about politics, we are actually talking deeply about ourselves, without realizing it. The very personal story running underneath each person’s political views is the Lost Ark within the Wall of Souls.

You, then, must be Indiana Jones.

You’ve seen the movie. I don’t have to tell you that reaching your goal - uncovering the personal stories underneath political views - involves braving a viper pit. I didn’t say it would be easy or risk-free. But it’s worth it. Because just expressing curiosity about each other’s stories has an almost magical effect of softening our differences. In my sixteen-year relationship we’ve found it to be a tonic for the divisiveness of these times. (And P.S.: it works for other thorny topics besides politics.) Here are some dos and don’ts for budding Indys:

1. Stay grounded and calm. When we feel under assault, our reptilian brain takes over. We can't hear anything. We can't process complex information. We definitely can't listen. If you are upset, take care of yourself until you can be calm. This is not the time to talk to someone of opposing views. Take deep breaths, excuse yourself to baste the turkey, change the subject. For the same reason, do not take the offensive.

If, for example, your cousin starts saying “shame on the Oakland Police Department” and wagging her forefinger in your tired Oakland Police officer husband’s face:

Don’t say, “Oh puh-lease, I am so sick of people ragging on the cops. They get no credit for putting their lives on the line for this city. Why don’t YOU try it some time, huh??”

Try this instead. Put your hand over your heart and take a deep breath. Then maybe you can say, “Those were definitely some disturbing images. I know crowd control is one of the most challenging aspects of police work. It’s definitely scary for me when my honey is on the line.”

If not, there is always, “I think I hear the doorbell ringing!”

2.  Be open to looking at something differently, or learning something new. While it’s good to share your point of view, do not do it with the aim of changing the other person’s opinion. Ask for detail. Uncle Frank might say “when I was a youngster, they just would’ve called in the National Guard and run over those hooligans with tanks!” Don’t respond with “Jesus, Uncle Frank, was everybody a Neanderthal back then?” Try this: “Uncle Frank, tell us about some of the protests that went on in the sixties. Did you know anybody involved in them?”

3.  Use humor whenever possible. Did you hear the one about the cop and the protestor that got married? Laughter is a great release. I like to tell the story of what happened after my arrest photo was taken. One officer was given the job of driving me to jail. Through the metal barrier, I sang him a lusty version of Jimmy Cliff’s “Peace Officer.” Turned out cops laugh too. 

Good luck. Don’t worry if it doesn’t work at first. It gets easier with practice. Plus, the attempt will make a difference. Happy Holidays from this bipartisan family to yours, whatever your political views.