Earlier this week, I listened to a radio segment that took as its point of departure a recent poll claiming that Americans are more anxious than usual about conversations around the Thanksgiving dinner table. Yesterday, a similar news story was trending on Facebook. Naturally, this anxiety is closely linked to the possibility of heated political debates emerging as relatives from across the political spectrum are forced by convention to gather near one another and possibly even talk to one another. While such anxiety is nothing new, its intensity surely owes something to the increasingly polarized and toxic political climate.
A few thoughts followed for me. First, I thought of the Friendsgiving trend, popular among younger adults. If Thanksgiving dinners revolve around relationships we did not choose, Friendsgiving meals center on relationships of affinity. We can’t choose our family, but we can and do choose our friends.
I then thought about how this seems to reflect a larger trend that extends beyond Thanksgiving: we are increasingly able to arrange our lives around relationships of affinity and escape relationships of necessity or obligation. I am, of course, thinking of relationships outside of the realm of work, wherein many know only relationships of necessity or obligation.
The Internet has played no small role in this. Whatever your niche, you’re likely to find an Internet community with which to connect. However obscure your interests, with a few clicks you’ll find others who share it. This is a fine development in many respects, and I suspect that a great deal of loneliness has been assuaged as a result. But there is a darker side to this as well. Not too long ago, for example, Facebook ran a series of commercials explicitly selling their app as a means of escaping, mentally and emotionally if not physically, from dinners with family members that drone on about matters we care little to nothing about.
Yet, we do not share our world, our country, our cities, or most of our public institutions only with those for whom we have some affinity. How and where, then, do we learn to relate with those we would not choose as our friends but with whom we must nonetheless share the world?
Perhaps there is no better place than a table. “To live together in the world,” Hannah Arendt observed in The Human Condition, “means essentially that a world of things is between those that have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it.” The table, she adds, “relates and separates men at the same time.”
The image is instructive. As we gather around a table, we constitute something like a micro-community. We are brought together but retain our separate identities. Perhaps today, around the Thanksgiving Day table, our micro-community will more perfectly reflect the lager, more fractious and contentious community we inhabit as citizens.
Under such circumstances, we ordinarily remember the counsel to avoid talk of religion and politics. Ordinarily, I would think this sound advice. There is something to be said for keeping the peace and for preserving spaces and times untouched by the turmoil of the political, for relating to another person without reducing them to their political opinions.
But today I am wondering if this is not one of the few opportunities we have left to us to practice the art of civil discourse. Social media has become, almost certainly for the worse, our default public sphere, and social media is an awful school of civil discourse: its structures actively undermine the possibility. The table, on the other hand, may be a more humane school, although it becomes so only by putting a great deal at risk.
Maybe the risk is too great. Maybe we do well to preserve the peace at the family table. I don’t know. It is the sort of thing we must each judge for ourselves, guided by wisdom and love. I do know, however, that there is another risk we are running: the risk of never learning how to relate well with those who do not share our own preferences and proclivities, especially on matters of grave and enduring importance.
Relating well with such individuals does not mean, in my view, that we will necessarily come to a point of agreement. It does mean that we never lose sight of our common humanity and that, as far as it is possible, we gain a deeper understanding of one another. It means as well that we learn the art of listening and the art of speaking so as to be heard, remembering that “it’s a curse to speak without some regard for the one I’m talking to.” It means finding grounds for hope rather than despair.
May each of your tables, however the conversation turns, be filled with joy and gratitude. For my part, I’m grateful that my affinities do not structure all of my relationships; I think I’d be poorer for it.