Thanksgiving is a time of family gatherings around a table of bountiful goods and the warmth of home. Yet it may have been a little awkward for many last year following the most divisive presidential election in memory that brought passionate debates from social media computer screens into the dining room.
If you think last year was difficult, this holiday includes more topics to bring out the Rolaids before dessert or cause many to stay embedded in their smartphones.
Politics, for instance, hasn’t gotten any friendlier. How family members feel about the Trump presidency may differ by generation, region and other factors, and there isn’t a lot of middle ground. Either the president is “draining the swamp” and changing the game or he’s leading us to the eve of destruction. And spinoffs into discussions about Congress or state politics isn’t likely to yield much more agreement.
Keeping the TV in the den off CNN, MSNBC or Fox News may avoid lighting that fuse. But you can’t switch to football, which used to be a safe haven from politics. Now NFL games have become a flashpoint of controversy over players kneeling during the national anthem. So a new debate: Is this a valid way to address societal problems, protected by the First Amendment, or a show of disrespect by wealthy celebrity-athletes? Can’t toss that ball around without endangering the good china.
You really need a safer distraction before the dressing is done, so you flip to a movie or TV show, hoping that’s safe. But what if one of the faces on the screen is among the many entertainers recently accused of sexual misconduct? Now a new discussion: Were these men sleazy predators or victims of opportunistic women in a massive conspiracy? Again, differences in age and gender might drown out the oven timer.
By this point, the cranberry sauce and the gravy are flying, mom’s linen tablecloth is stained beyond recognition and no amount of pie can salvage the jovial holiday mood.
So how do we get through the holidays with our relations’ relationships intact? What we need is a bit of common ground to get heads nodding instead of shaking and keep the mashed potatoes in the bowl. And on each risky topic, maybe there’s some agreement to be found.
In politics, for instance, both the Trump and Hillary Clinton campaigns are suspected of having their links with Russian agitators seeking to disrupt last year’s election. Whether one side, neither or both are guilty, we can agree Vladimir Putin and his minions are bad actors who should butt out of our internal squabbles, and those who consort with the enemy to thwart their political foes are lower than the soles on Uncle Joe’s penny loafers. In fact, the best line to steer forks back toward plates may be: “Well, they’re all a bunch of crooks anyway.”
That can include politicians on both sides and others accused of accosting women. Whether you believe one case more than another, it’s clear the pattern of abuse isn’t a partisan one. For every Bill Clinton or Al Franken there’s a Roy Moore or Donald Trump. Maybe a point of agreement is that powerful men need to take a giant step back from their egos and stop forcing themselves on those who feel too intimidated or frightened to fight back.
This also might serve as a teachable moment for younger family members. Girls can learn to never be afraid to resist when they feel threatened or taken for granted. And young boys need to take “no” for an answer and never crash a party they’re not invited to by pushing themselves on an unwilling partner.
Finding gray area in the football protests may not be so easy. Whatever their intent, those who kneel before the flag raise the fury of some who believe it disrespects those in the armed forces who are called upon to defend it. When the anthem is played, Grandpa remembers colleagues who died next to him in the jungles of the Pacific, Korea or Vietnam, and Cousin Mike the same for his buddies in the deserts of Iraq or Afghanistan. To them, it’s more than just a symbol.
Try this: When the discussion turns to athletes who cross that line, bring up the story of Tampa Bay hockey player J.T. Brown, one of the few black players in the NHL. He originally raised a fist during the anthem, but then decided to do something more substantive instead. He ended his symbolic gesture and took action in his community by meeting with police officers and going on ride-alongs to understand their point of view, and he donated game tickets to a mentoring program for officers and young people. Perhaps everyone passing around the whipped cream can admire his positive approach.
The best idea for holiday peace, perhaps, would be to turn off the TV, put down our devices and bow our heads before we dig into dinner or debates and give thanks for what we have: The food, a roof over our heads and the blessings of free speech to express our views. After that, let’s be willing to listen to each other and try to understand the backgrounds and experiences that shape individual ideas. Young and old should strive to see through each other’s eyes and recognize how a changing world has molded different views.
None of this guarantees we will avoid conflicts over what divides us. But a little perspective helps us realize there is more to be thankful for and celebrate than cause for arguments. Presidents, politicians, ballplayers and celebrities come and go, but your kinfolk will always be there. Even when we disagree, we can do so with a foundation of respect and affection when we work a little harder at it.
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