Thanksgiving Reflections: Searching for Common Ground
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Getting together with family can be fraught under any circumstances, and in families where political differences are marked, or family members reject or distrust you or your significant other for racist, homophobic, or other bigoted reasons, holidays like Thanksgiving can be painful. Some people who are not welcome among their biological relatives attend “Friendsgiving” celebrations or alternate gatherings with their chosen family.
If you have family members who are currently dwelling "in the disinformation tunnel," as I often put it, a decision may be made to put politics aside for the occasion. For the more militant, that might seem an accommodation that the "disinformed" don't deserve.
Why shouldn't we talk about the costs of hate speech against LGBTQ communities, or GOP politicians’ refusal to condemn Jan. 6 and the killings of Capitol Police? Shouldn’t Trump followers know that their beloved leader was fleecing them, given that he raised $250 million from supporters for a non-existent election defense fund?
In other words, aren't we doing our loved ones a favor by directing them to the truth, freeing them from the fog of lies and conspiracy theories?
This Thanksgiving comes at a particularly sensitive time for hard-core Trump supporters, who are seeing their idol criticized and even forsaken by some GOP elites. This can be highly destabilizing for cult followers, and those who begin to doubt the truth of their convictions may initially become more rigid in their beliefs.
The more an individual has invested in the alternate reality, the more they are reluctant to admit to others, and to themselves, that they have misjudged the situation. Many prefer to live in denial rather than experience the shame or humiliation that comes from admitting that they have misplaced their affection or been duped by a con man.
In recent years we had a dramatic example of how this urge to "save face" can dominate even in life and death situations. Sociologist Brooke Harrington writes of pandemic and vaccine deniers who have fallen sick with Covid-19 and continue to uphold their views while in the ICU.
We can also cite people who voted for Brexit and even in the face of the economic disruption and downturns it has caused refuse to admit they were taken in by the faux populism of Boris Johnson and other politicians. This has been the case with my mother, who lives in England and was radicalized during the pandemic from watching Russia Today.
This is why, as we get together this holiday season, we might heed the advice of experts like Steven Hassan, who encourages people not to cast judgment or reprimand their loved ones who are immersed in disinformation.
We might also resist the temptation to present individuals with evidence of the falsity of their beliefs. I know from my own experience that if such evidence often comes from sources that these loved ones consider to be “fake news,” it will be immediately dismissed.
Disinformation, bridge-building, and cult experts concur in recommending that we keep the disinformed close and find common ground on other issues, as hard as that might be. This does not mean we are accepting or validating their racist or anti-science beliefs; finding common ground is a pragmatic move. After all, if we cut them off or yell at them, we simply magnify the chances that they will remain siloed among like-minded people.
In this spirit, I give you some reflections by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, from his book How To Fight. You may read them and say "I can't do that!" I myself have yet to put this advice into practice. Yet they dovetail with some of the most useful bridge-building and anti-polarization strategies I have seen, starting with the importance of listening to others and pausing before responding if someone wants to escalate a conflict.
Here are some of the mantras he offers to guide conversations and moments together with disinformed loved ones.
I am here for you. I enjoy being in your presence, i care about you.
I feel your pain.
I am suffering; please help. Express hurt, tell them how they are hurting you, and ask them for support.
This image sent to me by a Lucid subscriber from Sonoma County, California, illustrates one last piece of advice from Thich Nhat Hanh: Be a tree in the storm. Rather than speak our anger, be rooted like the trunk of a tree.
I wish you a wonderful holiday and look forward to our discussion on Sunday.