Talking Politics at the Family Dinner Table

Every four seconds, an idealistic adolescent in North America screams at their parents for not being woke. Although this statistic is entirely made up, I’ve heard enough personal anecdotes to believe it. Many parents, at the end of a long day, are feeling attacked by their once innocent children, which naturally leads them to wonder: what happened to the maxim that we shouldn’t talk politics or religion at the dinner table?

A Brief History of the Maxim

The taboo on political and religious discourse has its roots in what sociologist Norbert Elias once called the civilizing process—the centuries-long transformation, beginning in the Middle Ages, of individual habits, attitudes and internal dispositions that culminated in twenty-first century conceptions of manners and civility. In other words, the exclusion of these fraught dinner time topics from polite conversation was a byproduct of the very same processes that outlawed duels, and made it such that many in the West today not only rarely witness violence, but also find the idea of participating in it abhorrent. These are not small achievements.

This maxim also holds a special relationship to liberalism. In order to prevent endless bloodshed over differing religious beliefs, early liberals like J. S. Mill postulated (indeed, invented) the separation of public and private spheres. In On Liberty, Mill argues that, while the public sphere ought to be a space where citizens can deliberate about public matters, in a free society everyone is entitled to a private sphere, within which they can believe what they want and express themselves as they wish. This separation of spheres is crucial to liberal democratic freedom: it is widely acknowledged today that neither the state, nor anyone else, has the right to force you to believe something, or to spend your free time in a way you don’t wish to. In separating the public from the private, religious and moral beliefs were privatized: that is, they became matters that pertained to the individual conscience, belonging to the private sphere.

We take for granted just how much this separation of spheres pervades our lives. Consider that in order to eat at a restaurant, take a trip, buy groceries or enjoy a commercial service you need not disclose anything about your political or religious beliefs. There is no moral litmus test you must pass in order to enjoy the benefits of a free society. This is a by-product of the privatization of morality and religion: by making these matters private, citizens who hold radically different political and religious commitments can (theoretically) co-exist in relative peace. As a result, socialists, libertarians, evangelicals and atheists can all eat, work and enjoy their leisure time alongside one another, so long as they don’t break the law. Of course, citizens today have the opportunity, come election time, to make public their beliefs in the form of voting for the candidate who best represents them, but, between elections, it is generally accepted that one’s political and moral beliefs are private matters.

The Corrosion of Public Life

A brief scan of my Facebook newsfeed reveals a litany of political self-expression and religious advocacy. This fact would seem to challenge my earlier claims. But the widespread politicization of social media in large measure reflects the lack of available spaces in contemporary liberal democracies to engage in vibrant and civil political or religious dialogue.

As a result of the privatization of morality and religion in liberal societies, one has a choice whether or not to engage with public (political) matters. Liberal citizens are not required to stay informed, be civically engaged or (in most countries) to even vote. We are completely free to ignore or dismiss all things related to public life. And although we are, of course, limited by law, we are free to pursue whatever projects we can dream up (whether they involve financial success, sexual escapades or spiritual enlightenment).

When early liberals argued for this sphere of private freedom, they did so assuming that the right to take part in democratic governance—to have a say in how one’s society is run—was a privilege that few would pass up. Clearly, they were wrong. We have witnessed a gradual, but definitive, cultural shift: away from a preoccupation with public life to one centered on private pursuits. As a result, it has become increasingly difficult to get people to care about public life.

Perhaps the politicization of social media reflects a desperate attempt on the part of the minority who really care about politics (and it is a minority) to get others in their lives to listen to them? Aside from social media, independent news and perhaps a university classroom, there are few spaces in liberal societies where lay folk have the opportunity to discuss politics and religion.

Perhaps, then, the over-politicization of social media merely reflects the increasing scope of the taboo on religious and political discourse in liberal democratic societies? If this is correct, then it would seem that the liberal separation of public and private spheres has proved a double-edged sword: while it has enabled peaceful co-existence between individuals who hold different (even opposing) moral and religious beliefs, it has simultaneously made it quite difficult to find appropriate spaces in which to deliberate on the common good. Although our newsfeeds might be plagued with political discourse, most people spend little time engaging with political matters—they are busy pursuing their private lives, enjoying the individual freedoms liberalism makes possible.

This is not all bad. There is a real sense in which, say, the lack of voter turnout, especially among youth, is a sign of societal stability and success, not its demise. When things are good, there is much less reason to get involved in, or even discuss, politics. Political passion generally spikes during times of crisis and calamity, so in some ways we should be grateful.

But there are downsides to the increasing focus on private life, at the expense of public life. For one, as political scientist Robert Putnam has observed, civic engagement has waned tremendously and there are fewer and fewer spaces where citizens get together with one another in order to discuss public life (been to a town hall or city council meeting lately?). Second, people feel more isolated and alienated from one another, and narcissism has become rampant. Third, it is harder to get people to invest their time and energy in public projects, or to take an interest in matters of social justice. And it is here that the dinner table issue becomes most relevant.

Keeping Things Light

The avoidance of politics and religion as dinner table topics is fundamentally about keeping things light. Getting too heated can lead to anger, which can lead to violence. But today these topics are generally eschewed less for the sake of preventing violence and more because we don’t want anyone to dampen the mood. We work hard for our money and don’t want to be disturbed during our time off. Moreover, as Barbara Ehrenreich noted not long ago, we live in a culture of positivity—utilitarian in nature—in which negative feelings and topics which provoke them are seen to have no value. Accordingly, topics like social injustice, race, religion and inequality are generally not welcomed, because they disturb our culturally induced drive to feel positive all the time.

Nowhere is this more evident than in family life. For most of us, family life is sacred: it is a space of self-expression and self-disclosure, of intimacy and emotional closeness. When we are with our families, we feel a pressure to be congenial, loving and cheerful. No one wants to be the one who spoils a family get-together by making others feel awkward or starting an argument. This is by no means an undesirable attitude. I cherish my family, and would hate it if our time spent together were governed by the same norms that structure a graduate seminar. There are good reasons for encouraging harmony over conflict, and steering clear of controversial topics for the sake of having a pleasant time.

The issues arise when family life becomes a kind of kin-based ideological bunker, quarantining itself from all potentially threatening or disturbing ideas. A harmonious family life is a good, but it is not the only good. Living in a just and healthy society is also a good, and a family that builds a border wall around itself in order to ward off anything that could disturb its positive vibes ignores this.

If Not with Family, Then When?

Some might argue the dinner table is not the appropriate place to have such discussions. Okay, then what is? Liberal public life provides few obvious outlets for these discussions. In our culture of positivity, there is never a good time to bring up controversial topics, so why not do so at the dinner table? Family dinners can serve as a useful platform for political discussion.

If you can’t have discussions about these topics with your family, then who can you have them with? Family ties are the deepest there are: bound by blood, rather than mutual benefit, familial relationships ought to be able to endure heated discussions without breaking up. If your family is one in which members disagree about things, dinners can serve as great occasions to practice listening to one another and trying to understand differing points of view. If the age of polarization is characterized by increasing tribalism, our family members, given our loyalty to them as family, can encourage us to question our priors and examine our blind spots. Liberal democracy requires individuals who hold radically different notions of the good society to be able to agree to disagree peacefully. This takes discipline and forbearance. We ought to cultivate this democratic virtue with our family members first and foremost. Despite the freedom it offers, liberal democracy requires engaged and informed citizens to sustain itself. Too few today recognize this. The right to self-governance (both personal and political) is not so much a privilege as it is a responsibility. Family dinners can serve as occasions where loved ones discuss the common good, thereby engaging in the practice of democracy. It was only because large percentages of the population became informed and took action against the social ills and injustices of their day that we in liberal democracies now live in such prosperous and free countries. Let us not take this for granted.

How (Not) to Do It

Although I am critical of the wholly apolitical family dinner, at which people consciously avoid all contentious topics, I am equally critical of its opposite: those politicized family dinners where politics is the only topic discussed, and where individuals must constantly demonstrate their loyalty to the right team. At its most extreme, at such a dinner every joke and comment is filtered through the lenses of political correctness and social justice, and quieter family members feel as though they have arrived not at a family dinner but at a debate team try-out. This is equally, if not more, intolerable.

Having experienced family dinners of both kinds on numerous occasions, I favor a middle way. Let me offer some advice on how to achieve this.

To the Parent Who Simply Wants to Have a Nice Dinner with Family

It is completely understandable that you wish only to have a nice family dinner. I mean, how often does this happen, given how busy everyone is these days? And why would you want to risk getting into an argument when you’ve had a busy day at work? You rightly feel that you deserve an evening of relative peace, scattered with occasional laughs and collective reminiscing. No one could blame you. But perhaps it is time you thought about issues that don’t simply affect you or your immediate family? Just enough to put your own troubles in perspective. And when your child brings up an issue that you find utterly inconsequential, or even misguided, try not to belittle her. Perhaps listening to her will open your eyes to something you haven’t yet seen? You may be so invested in the way things are that you have trouble questioning them. If you wish to be on the right side of history, you would be wise to reflect on your assumptions. If your child attacks you, try not to take it personally. I know this is difficult, but remember that she (or he) likely feels starved for open discussion on these matters, and because you’re her parent she’s chosen to express herself with you. Be grateful for this. Although you might disagree with her, try to understand that she means well. She ultimately wants what she thinks is best for society. Try and be aware of when you find yourself wanting to squash controversy for the sake of harmony. Honestly ask yourself: how do you think society changes for the better if no one is allowed to discuss these topics with their family? And why do you think it’s okay to just avoid thinking about these issues? Your child is interested in raising a subject that matters, not just to her, but to many others not sitting at your dinner table. Try and keep that in mind. You may just learn something.

To the Child Who Wants Her Family to See How Unjust or Terrible the World Really Is

Your passion is admirable, and I would certainly not doubt your conviction, but you have to understand that you are not going to win over anyone with that tone. The more condescending you sound, the less they will listen. Sometimes it matters less what you say than how you say it. I know you’re frustrated: it feels as though no one is listening, and that you and your friends are the only ones who have seen the light. But consider that things may be less simple and clear cut than you are making them out to be. For instance, it is not fair to attack your family for being part of the problem. You have no idea what they’ve been through, and you wouldn’t be where you are today if it weren’t for your parents (or guardians). You may be right about the systems of injustice that pervade society, but there is much more to the world than injustice. Also, have some humility. You have lived far fewer years than your parents, and this limits your vision considerably. You are entitled to your opinions, and certainly should not give up on your ideals, but the best thing you can do is live up to your principles. The more you yell, the more the people sitting around you will think you are a hypocrite, and the less your message will be heard. It isn’t worth losing your family over this one issue. Also, try and enjoy yourself a bit more. Politics is only one dimension of life—an important one, yes, but it is not everything. So relax. It is not your responsibility to solve all of the world’s problems tonight. Enjoy this time with your family, and show them the love and respect they deserve.

Conclusion

Political polarization is not simply something that exists out there. It is in our neighborhoods and in our homes, even at our dinner tables. Liberal democratic politics requires that we learn to engage with one another, despite our differences. Given the scarcity of locales where we can engage in deliberation about public matters, I see no reason why the dinner table cannot serve as a potential site of civil debate. Yet I also acknowledge the risks involved. Therefore, if we are to reject the age-old maxim that we ought not discuss politics and religion at the dinner table—which I believe we must—it is imperative that we do so conscientiously. The good of our families, and societies, depends on it.

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3 comments

  1. See, there’s a lot of interesting commentary here but the author’s casual invocation of “the right side of history” stopped me in my tracks. Though not the focus of this article, I don’t fell I should let it pass without comment.

    There is no “right side of history,” because history doesn’t have sides. It isn’t an eternal war between good and evil. As in the courts, so in every other type of political judgement—there are rarely easy answers. You have to weigh goods against each other. For instance, is it better to have more stability and more inequality, or less of both? Is it better to have more independence and less safety? What is the ideal proportion? Most people have more than a few things they value. Most values don’t harmonize with each other all the time. Working out the contradictions is our task a moral individuals.

    It’s really kind of ironic that the author lectures the children about tone right after adopting the most condescending attitude possible towards the parents’ values with the use of this phrase. How about we balance the value of snappy phrases with the value of internal consistency and tone it down a bit?

    1. If we look in history, I think we can find many issues where there was a “right side” to be on (i.e. slavery). If we make the assumption that people living in different time periods don’t differ considerably in terms of intelligence or innate moral character (which, in my opinion, is a reasonable assumption), then we have to accept the uncomfortable conclusion that there may be issues today, perhaps even positions that we hold, that future generations will look back on the way we look back on slavery.
      Now, I don’t know which issues those are; I certainly wouldn’t be so arrogant to proclaim my positions to be the ones on the “right side of history”. And it could possibly be that we have reached a point where the only issues we currently argue about are ones where there really isn’t any “right” side. But I don’t think that we should rule out the possibility.
      Aristotle’s defenses of slavery are particularly disturbing. If someone as brilliant as Aristotle could support something so morally repugnant, then so can we.

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