Your Racist Uncle: On the Significance of Familial Ideological Disparities
Tomorrow, many American families will congregate around respective dinner tables and thoroughly-prepared meals to celebrate a holiday contrived for the expression of gratitude (I won't get into the cultural architecture surrounding the festivities right now, though I implore you to follow that thread). The week will culminate for many in a fierce and chaotic stampede to find cheaply priced TV's and all-too-often frivolous widgets which champion our one-sided love of things and ambitious technologies. The festival of those we have, the good fortune in our life - however sparse or difficult to pronounce - is lost in the oncoming clamor for the diversion.
But this year, our annual convergence of human fellows does not need a consumerist chant to subdue the holiday. Collectively, Americans prepare to journey towards or welcome friends and family into an overwhelming and palpable political tension. There are those who are distraught, terrified and concerned by the outcomes of our recent election, all it has brought to light and the uncertainty of our nation's future. Even the supposed "victors" of this recent political experience are wary of the lectures that await them, the cries for justice and impassioned reactions to the torrent of stories in recent weeks. They dread the criticism of their beliefs, their idols and the pillars which substantiate their leanings and perspectives. They see whiners, immaturity and undue hostility.
Neither side, however well-represented, articulate or compassionate, appears ready to hear the other.
And I can see why. We are cordoned off in our respective schools, places of work and regions of the country, often drawn quietly yet distinctly towards those who look our age, speak our tongue and most noticeably, play the part. The people who think, act and feel as we do are often those who make up the ensemble in our lives. As a result, the misunderstandings, awkward conversation and tension inherent to any gathering of such familial but different individuals have been a foundational part of Thanksgiving for a long time. On the surface, the joy of seeing familiar faces, sharing food and catching up with one another is dressed as a pleasant convention. But as we are ever drawn to like-minded souls (and more equipped to find them than ever), how can we approach this minefield of ideological opposition? What's more, in the unclear present we all share, why would we?
This is where I would like to summon the age-old trope of the "racist uncle," often an elder member of the family whose views are more firmly rooted in a bygone ideology which does not reflect the liberal perspective (one I share, for transparency here) and popular narrative of progress. Those in the middle of the political spectrum will shrug and gently laugh at the old-timer without a clear connection to the present while family on the left will glare with a mixture of horror, sorrow and disgust. Arguments might well emerge if the polar opposites feel particularly charged or disrespected.
And how we choose to treat this individual, who need not be male, older or limited to racist beliefs, says a great deal about us and about how our larger society will function and progress. I've come to be saddened by the calls for conversational silence during the holiday, the intention to avoid argument. I'd like to think my morality compels a passion in me equal to that of my peers or political opponents, but I also have a fundamental belief in discourse. It strikes me as intellectually lazy to avoid such conversations with those whose banners flutter in stark contrast to our own. I don't know if it's truly possible to change the minds of others who are not willing to open themselves up to dialogue. But in the absence of a family member who might have a trust and connection that others do not, can we honestly expect this relative to be met by business partners, teammates or strangers who might make the effort? Though I have my reservations about my own family, is it not a societal building block most of us share? If not for our own engagement with those bound to us by blood, do we presume critical thinking to be somehow delivered to the ideologically stubborn?
To those who would point out the hopelessness of the situation, I hear your points. "People can't change" is easy enough to parrot in times of tension and disagreement, but human beings clearly change in various ways within a lifetime. My point is simply that our family members, those who may possess the social proximity and bond to do so, are more equipped than others in this circumstance. And I would ask of my fellow liberal readers: If you are unwilling to coax out the beliefs and stances of those you disagree with, how can you expect to truly understand where they come from? What's more, how can you persuade them if you do not ask for the nuanced sounds and feelings of their language?
You might gesture to hatred, ignorance or moral inferiority. I don't deny that there people who manifest these qualities, but it is my contention - however idealistic - that these people are not fundamentally without reason or heart. Hatred, for example, might reveal itself in the call for selfishness, violence and vehement attitudes. But its bitter sibling, I believe, is born out of the hopelessness for those with whom we share the table. I make no attempt to claim an ease or great comfort of trying but I find it reasonable to estimate that any of us, regardless of our beliefs, are especially unlikely to change if we are not made to confront new, clearly-presented information.
If you do believe that there are those who can be reached by reason or empathy, I hope that you will make an effort to listen to them and then communicate.
If you believe that there are those who exist within a void of morality and connection to humanity at large, I would ask how you propose we treat these individuals. Where do we go from here? And if not in the curious silence that emerges from repeated screams for change, perhaps in new words set within a different frame of discourse.