Seeking Family Peace in Polarizing Times
Years ago, a mentor gave some of his students advice about peacefully getting along with family members who not only differed in political beliefs, but were vocal and confrontational about those beliefs. The mentor gave us this salient advice, "Think of them as the annoying drunk uncle at Thanksgiving. You know he'll be there, telling crude jokes, and bloviating about his beliefs. But you can avoid him and don't have to let him 'in.' You'll be more peaceful if you learn to roll your eyes and radically accept, (if you, like most of us have an Uncle Joe) 'That's just Uncle Joe being Uncle Joe'."
To date, this strategy may have worked for most people. Most of our cohort felt pretty good about our mentor's advice of not reacting, ignoring comments, surely not engaging in in-the-moment conflict, and not letting them ruin time with friends and family members whose company we enjoy each holiday or family get together.
But 2020 is an entirely different time. What was once general political discord is now literally life-and-death, knee-on-a-neck homicide. It's also a lethal pandemic that's become politicized, with ill-informed, mask-rejecting individualism trumping the collective health of a nation and endangering the lives of those among us who trust in science. It's compromising our ability to keep our families safe, send our kids back to school, and return to work. Many of us are having a hard time swallowing the utter lack of care and responsibility for putting our communities and loved ones' lives at literal risk - not to mention jeopardizing both adult and children's mental health through prolonged, no-end-in-sight isolation.
During the most polarizing current political climate in recent American memory, how do we navigate the dramatic escalation of what was once the stuff of eye-rolling discourse, express our concerns, and still do our best to preserve some semblance of family peace? Is this still even possible?
Some tips you might find helpful:
1. Compartmentalize - Can you still pass time with people whose positions violently oppose yours and keep politics away from family events? Can you spend less time with or avoid some of these people?
2. Try to lay the groundwork ahead of gatherings that politics are off limits - an email from the host(s) ahead of a socially distant event requesting that masks are required and politics are off limits so a niece can have a socially distant birthday party or your son has a graduation get together helps set expectations and stresses the real purpose of a gathering - also giving people who like to argue a reminder that kids' feelings of joy are at stake if the event is to take an ugly turn.
3. Try to not take the bait either live or on social media - If you're able, shrug your shoulders, roll your eyes, and keep scrolling. It is rare that an Uncle Joe will change his mind as a result of being schooled or shamed either in person or on social media. Typically, this just digs his heels in more firmly and escalates the conflict.
4. Don't forget to treat one another like human beings - You may violently disagree with their opinions, but optimism leads me to believe that we have much more in common than not. If you can connect with shared humanity, you may better understand what feeds family/friends' fear and hatred. Not that this is an excuse, but rather an explanation, and in this we can sometimes find empathy.
5. Don't be afraid to politely leave - If masks aren't worn, if discussions turn ugly, if you feel attacked, pack up and leave. You don't need to provide an explanation for leaving a situation if you feel emotionally or physically unsafe.
6. Unfriending/blocking - If all diplomacy fails, it's sad, but we may just need to take space from some acquaintances. Rather than a dramatic excommunication, we can choose to take a half-step back and give the connection some space that may be healed later.
But sometimes, despite our best efforts, we get sucked in. Immediately after George Floyd was murdered, and the BLM movement was quickly gaining momentum, I posted a vitriolic, shaming social media post that in retrospect may have been too powerful. I accused friends and family not actively trying to learn from our POC friends and making a deliberate choice to be willfully ignorant. But this is no longer a political difference in opinion; It's a matter of justice, basic human rights, morality, and our responsibility to learn to be allies to protect fellow human beings from repeated, senseless murders. It's a matter of protecting the lives of those in our communities put at risk because of a self-preoccupied lack of concern about our country's collective health and ever being able to emerge from social isolation.
I'm looking forward to comments and hearing from some of you what your experiences and strategies have been so that we may all learn from one another.