We’re eight months into a pandemic, and still, a lot of people don’t think it’s real. The sitting president is likely planning a coup against the president-elect. The state has been escalating violence against its own citizens, primarily Black people. So if you do join your family for Thanksgiving, you’ll have plenty to talk about. But this holiday season won’t be of the Hallmark movie variety. This is more like a Blumhouse Productions holiday special about talking politics with family.
Maybe you’re coming home to a whole family of conservatives. Maybe you only have a great aunt or distant cousin to worry about. Or maybe your family agrees with you on some things, but not everything, not some of the things you think are most important. In any case, you’re probably thinking about a specific fight, probably from 2016, that still clings to you like a ghost. We’re all worried about how this year’s big events will show up at the dinner table (or Zoom call) – an impending jump scare sure to hurt feelings and strain relationships. For a lot of young people, though, school shutdowns and closures have kept them in their childhood bedrooms since March. They’ve been watching the news, quarantining, going to protests, and voting while sharing a roof with parents and elders who may have very different politics. And they’ve been having Thanksgiving-level screaming matches about it pretty much all year long.
For 22-year old Jeanine of Oahu, Hawaii, the year has been defined by arguments with her dad over Trump and the novel coronavirus. Her parents immigrated from the Philippines and gained entry to the U.S. thanks to her father’s military service, so they’re hardcore Republicans. In her house, talking about politics is a “one-way ticket to a screaming match.” On one hand, her parents brag about having a healthcare worker daughter “on the frontlines,” lauding her bravery to anyone who will listen. “But behind closed doors,” Jeanine tells Refinery29, “They were like: ‘You still don't know what you're talking about, coronavirus will blow over because that's what Trump said.’” She realized that she and her parents live in separate worlds and it hurts that they don’t care to acknowledge hers.
Her dad believes Trump’s claims about hydroxychloroquine. He refuses to listen to her when she explains the science behind why it doesn’t work. “It was such a disconnect for me. And they would just keep arguing until they were blue in the face. Saying things like ‘you’re wrong, you’re too young. You don’t understand.’”
All their arguments seem to fall into a pattern Jeanine has learned to recognize. It goes like this: Her dad watches Fox News. He turns to her and asks her thoughts. And this is where everything freezes and our protagonist has a choice to make. Lately, she’s been opting out of any serious conversations about politics, so she says things like, “Oh, I don’t think much about it” to avoid getting into it. “Because, you know, they’re not actually asking you what you think. They’re just picking a fight so I try to step away as best I can.”
When she thinks about all the fights and confrontations she’s had with her parents, mostly with her dad, Jeanine sounds disheartened: “Some days I wonder how I came from them. Like, how did I come from that kind of environment where you don't care about others and I'm going into a profession where you do care about others?” She wishes her parents felt like they had space to learn. “Maybe it’s just how they were brought up – being wrong was not acceptable – but I wish they knew like it's okay to be wrong.”
In Richmond, Virginia, 17-year-old Sophia has noticed that her conversations with her parents (especially her dad) also follow a similar pattern. “I've always noticed it's a joke,” Sophia says. “They say they're kidding. But it's not, it's not really a joke.” Like Jeanine, Sophia often walks away from these discussions feeling small and belittled. “I get discredited a lot because I’m 17 and 'don’t know anything.'"
We see the same pattern taking place on a wider scale: Trump uses Twitter almost exclusively to taunt and push other people’s buttons. And it’s not just parents making sideways comments looking for a fight, it’s that white supervisor at work that goes out of his way to say he “can’t be himself,” lest he is reported to HR. It’s the cohort of famous writers and academics decrying “cancel culture” when they feel they are being challenged by people they consider intellectually inferior. No wonder we’re seeing this dynamic play out in our own families.
Like most people, Sophia just wants her parents to respect her and not resort to low blows about her age or gender to win a debate. “There's a whole different life that I have that they don't have anything to do with and I've kind of gotten to experience a world on my own instead of them like teaching it to me and it's become something I noticed like every single day,” she explains. Before quarantine, Sophia said she was happy to go along with what her parents thought. She had just started middle school when the 2016 election was taking place and they didn’t seem eager to discredit her when she was going along with what they wanted. “I don't expect them to change how they think. I would love for them to listen to me more. I would love to just have a conversation and not an argument.”
But a lifetime of being an older sister has made Sophia a pro at de-escalating the situation, and when screaming matches are avoided, she says she often learns a lot from having conversations with her dad. Her strategies for avoidining conflict include changing the subject, giving a soft answer, and hoping they lose interest and move on. Alternatively, though, you might want to engage. It’s important to have these hard conversations, especially with those closest to you; your energy is best spent meeting your loved ones where they are instead of sparring with random people on the internet. But these are also the harder conversations to have, and there is no audience to shower us with likes when we do. In which case, make sure you have extra patience and a snack to fuel-up between emphatic nods.
Jeanine says she has friends who find themselves in more dangerous situations, where a fight about politics blows up past a screaming match. As a friend, she makes herself available to them – they go out for boba, drive around, kill time. Personally, she’s slowly divesting from political conversations with her dad. “I just don’t see the value in pissing myself off and raising my blood pressure,” she says. “The best I can do is just tell him, like, ‘you know, I don’t want to do this right now.’” If they did anything fun that day she’ll remind them of the good time they had, because, she says, "I want to love you at the end of the day."