Breaking bread post-election

Thanksgiving looked a bit different this year, taking into account COVID precautions. We held an early Thanksgiving, because I was originally departing to France mid-November so this would be the last celebration together. We kept the original date, because we had all already set up our quarantine schedules to align - can you imagine saying that at this time last year? One perk of holidays in the middle of the pandemic - family members no longer can ask you why you're single, and if they do, it should suffice to say that the special person you're supposedly meant to end up with is not currently in your allotted 10-person circle. This Thanksgiving will be different for many people not just due to COVID precautions, but also due to the current political environment. Family and difficult topics, what could go wrong?!

Thanksgiving 2020: A little smaller than our usual crowd with each "household" at different tables, six feet apart in a garage with lots of airflow and masks only off to eat (on to serve food). Peep the brother and sister-in-law video conferenced in at the back! Check out CDC guidelines to be as safe as possible.

I was not going to broach this topic at first, but a friend asked I write about how I have navigated the election and tough conversations given I know, and love, people across the political spectrum. Growing up in Texas, arguably a very republican state, and living for over 4 years in New York, arguably a very liberal city, I have witnessed each side of the political spectrum. Each place has its own echo chamber, and each place has its own set of political values. These differing values are what I, and many others, struggled with leading up to the election and now in the transition of power. Due to staying in Texas instead of New York during most of the pandemic (don't hate me - there is much more space and queso and no crazy roommate), I have had many conversations with family members and their neighbors about this election, as well as many conversations with friends and future classmates about it. These conversations are never easy, but they are so important. They are important not only in understanding current times but also in navigating future difficult conversations, some of which may have nothing to do with politics.

I am far from an expert at navigating these conversations, but I have learned a few things from being in a unique position of having these conversations with people across the political spectrum with people I care about. The primary concern I have seen with this election was that it was no longer centered on political policies such as federal banking policy, trade policy, or the like. Due to the conduct Trump exhibited in office, it centered on character for most people who voted against him, and policies for those that voted for him, ignoring the way he treats people. Obviously, there is no perfect candidate without any character snafus, but I think there is an easy litmus test for character. If you were able to invite the president of the United States for dinner, shouldn't you be proud to do so and know, without a doubt, they would speak nicely to (or tweet about) every member of your family, no matter what gender, race, sexual orientation, age?

From what I have seen over the past few months, the policies vs. character crux is where most arguments about the election started and ended. In fact, a Trump voter told me after the election results that, "This will be a good lesson for kids - you can't be a bully and win every time." I was actually happy to hear a Trump voter admit that they recognized Trump's character for what it was, but it also underscored that they voted for policies they agreed with over his character. Why is it difficult to get past this? Policies reflect values, but in no other political election in my lifetime (granted, that makes it only 8 elections, only 4 of which I was old enough to pay attention to) have I witnessed such polarization of values with regards to immigration, healthcare, and taking care of each other in the middle of a pandemic. And it is really difficult to view someone you care about the same way when you realize the different rankings each of you gives your values. I have seen many articles about how families and friends no longer talk to each other due to the election and supporting one candidate over the other. I understand how people may need to set boundaries, and I am also disappointed that I know people who voted for someone whose policies reflect values I wholeheartedly disagree with, but I also know the people I am thinking of are genuinely good people who I want to keep in my life.

How do I rectify this cognitive dissonance? Honestly, it's been a work in process of humanizing people on the other side of the conversation. Why do I have trouble with this? Aside from political differences, there have been instances in which I have been screamed at in person by conservatives when asking them to respect social distancing, insulted so much in comments by older (conservative) men for posting a piece of data to the point where a (conservative) user jumped in to stop them, and my intelligence and other attributes insulted for referencing a fact check on a viral, discredited doctor video. And these instances come from a white woman with a whole lot of privilege. But on the personal level, I have very loving family members who also voted in that same category who drop everything to help me move, set up a modified work from home office, and bring meals to families who are struggling. If you do not know someone who voted opposite you, try to expand your circle to humanize a category of people and figure out their reasoning, even if it is reasoning you do not agree with. Having conversations with people to try to understand why they voted the way they did, and gaining insight is the only path forward for friendships, families, and other relationships. So how do you go about having these difficult conversations? When having these discussions, I have not always been exercised my own tips every time - it is difficult to do so in the heat of the moment - but I have learned a lot in the past few months about how I want to handle tough conversations (political or not) going forward.

A few tips:

  1. As soon as someone raises their voice or cuts you off mid-sentence, try to not do the same. Saying, "I can see this is something you care a lot about, but can I please finish my sentence without being interrupted?" can help de-escalate the conversation and help the other person realize how they are behaving.

  2. If the conversation is not de-escalated or if disparaging remarks are made, make it clear immediately that you feel you are not being heard, remarks were hurtful, and you do not feel comfortable engaging in the conversation any longer. Anyone you are discussing a topic with who cares about you should react by respecting your boundaries, even if that means just leaving the room to cool off.

  3. Empathy is easy to preach and hard to act out. I love some great memes about the current times, too, but timing matters. Show some compassion for the people you're discussing with and know when you need to try to understand them instead of making a joke about the situation. You're never going to understand everything, but a simple "I hear you, I see where you're coming from, even if I don't agree with you" can help. Sometimes you can't honestly say that - in that case, I simply say "Okay - I'm going to go take care of x, y, or z now" if I can't say something nice back. This gives time to analyze what they said and provide introspection to see if there is a way to empathize with them.

  4. There will be some people who want to attempt thoughtful discussions but have a hard time doing so without being hurtful. If you have attempted these conversations with someone before who has proven they cannot be thoughtful, try to explain why these conversations are not productive. Try saying, "I would love to discuss this, but in the past, these discussions usually result in x, y, or z happening which makes me uncomfortable. If you would like to discuss this, please try to not raise your voice." And then suggest turning on a happy Christmas movie (personal preference). While it is important to have these discussions, it is also important to recognize where your personal boundaries lie and if people are respecting those.

How have these conversations turned out?

Not every discussion is fruitful, groundbreaking, or changing people's minds - but what has been important for me is understanding the perspective of people I care about. It is a political spectrum for a reason, which means there are extremes and points of view I honestly cannot understand or condone but not ones every voter supports. On the political front, what I have come to find is that most people who voted for Trump tended to be one-issue voters, with taxes being the top issue. A colleague's family member, who lives in a large city, said she "doesn't care who the president is as long as [her] tax bill doesn't increase." This opened my eyes, as I never thought about the election being a one-issue vote. It saddens me that taxes could be the sole reason to vote for someone, especially when false information about the actual tax plans are floating around. Facts have become debatable instead of being used in debate, which exacerbated the issues in the election. It is within everyone's right to vote in their self-interest, but I hope one day we get to a place where factcheck matters and people reflect on how policies as a whole would impact their neighbors, colleagues, and others who do not have the same privileges as them. When talking about the election, red voters tended to use "I/me" vs. blue voters tended to use "we/they". After all, we are built to take care of ourselves first, but this also further points to where politics and values mix and makes it more difficult to extricate someone's values from the person they voted for in this polarizing election. However, I do not think anyone wants to be identified as the exact same person they voted for (except maybe Kanye). One candidate's values do not necessarily reflect the entirety of a voter's values, even if it pointed to the fact they valued some priorities higher than others.

While a vote may seem to have more weight than all the actions people have showed you, try to think back to how you viewed someone's character prior to the election. Everyone has a right to assess character on their own, but I implore you to think of how someone who voted opposite of you has treated you AND other people before finalizing your assumptions. This does not mean I condone any behavior or that true values may have arisen out of this, but it does mean we won't advance as a society until we understand why certain behavior and perspectives are occurring. While I am sure you have seen my own political bias in this post, it goes without saying that this applies to both sides of the aisle. Apparently this has been an issue since the early 90's, because as I was re-watching Dawson's Creek, there was an episode where a conservative teenager asked a liberal teenager "aren't liberals supposed to be accepting of everyone's views?" I found this ironic as the conservative person was cast as someone who went to church three times a week so the question could have easily been turned back around as most religions teach acceptance. However, this remains a common theme today with the same question posed many times. The work to be done is not on one group of people - it is on all of us. This post was about how I have tried to understand the opposite view and move forward and having these difficult conversations - I hope everyone does the same. I have taken the time to watch news from sources I normally would not and have conversations I would normally avoid in order to gain a deeper understanding of each view. Next time you are having a discussion with someone who has a different view, try asking what they value first to frame the conversation differently and you might be surprised with the middle ground you find by removing names and affiliations from the discussion. Moving forward is not going to be as simple as glossing over the cracks this election has caused, or made more apparent, across our country and among communities. It is going to require work from people of all sides to view each other as more than the person they voted for, which is admittedly much easier said than done.

P.S. Follow the CDC's guidelines for a safe Thanksgiving with family, and think about if/how you want to discuss the inevitable election topic with people at your dinner table. If they're at your table, they had to pass the character litmus test to get through the front door, right?

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