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Can family dinner save democracy?

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Throughout the country and on Stanford’s campus, calls for civility and dialogue across differences are ubiquitous. Many maintain that America’s greatest crises stem from online filter bubbles, the tendency to demonize political opponents and our collective unwillingness to engage with divergent views. Intense polarization has prompted reflection on the value of conversation, sparking full-fledged organizations and movements that aim to bridge partisan divides through individual connections. Stanford administrators are quick to refer to Cardinal Conversations (while, to their credit, acknowledging its flaws) as a model for productive engagement, framing the initiative as their paramount contribution to improving the campus political climate.

For progressives who place a premium on dialogue, liberals with conservative family members are uniquely suited to heal our nation. Benefiting from the starting place of familial trust, they can initiate well-reasoned Thanksgiving dinner conversations, prove that we can humanize the other side and begin to forge a common vision for America. For every advocate of this romanticized appeal, someone will insist that to listen to racist and sexist remarks without firing back is to provide a platform for these perspectives and legitimize bigotry. Anything short of disengagement from offensive conversations gives license to their content. (Of course, these two schools of thought are largely irrelevant; among families who expected to have both Republicans and Democrats in attendance, 75 percent did not anticipate that political disagreements would come up at Thanksgiving.)

So, does the soul of America rest in the hands of liberals willing to initiate difficult conversations? Is it counterproductive to engage with family members whose views we find intolerable? Should we take the lead of the majority of Americans, leaving politics off the table entirely? There is some merit to each of these approaches. Ultimately, if we are to consider dialogue as a virtue, we must recognize that the quality of dialogue matters more than the fact that it is taking place. Before congratulating those who establish dialogue across difference, we must recognize that the value of conversation depends on the goals and ground rules that its interlocutors adopt.

It is also crucial to acknowledge the immense privilege that it takes to pursue dialogue as a solution to our nation’s problems. For many marginalized communities, the importance of addressing immediate risks and material concerns far outweighs the call to seek common ground with the other side. To engage in dialogue, both sides must recognize each other as equal and worthy of dignity. When the validity of someone’s identity is at stake—as is far too often the case for people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals and religious minorities—then a conversation cannot meet these conditions, and energy could be better expended elsewhere.

Another prerequisite to worthwhile dialogue is productive intention among all participants. Those involved must approach the conversation in good faith, driven by a desire for mutual understanding rather than a cynical thirst to provoke or trigger others. “Change My Mind” tables may bring people together to discuss opposing views, but they twist political conversation into confrontation. They are certainly not conducive to the repair of our social fabric and humanization of the other side of which dialogue’s biggest cheerleaders believe it to be capable. When participants assume that others are motivated by deeply held values, however disagreeable their manifestations, they respect others’ rights to their own beliefs and are more compelled to listen. Productive dialogue is only possible when all interlocutors treat each other as equals and are not willing to discount another perspective simply because of presumptions about the person who holds it. If one interlocutor makes it clear that they do not respect that others have a legitimate right to their own opinions, disengagement from conversation might be the most productive option.

Furthermore, dialogue is only a useful tool for change when it is sincere. The most frustrating approach to Thanksgiving dinner conversations that I encountered came from a psychiatrist writing for The New York Times, whose interactive Angry Uncle Bot prompts participants to choose one of three auto-generated responses to a series of left-wing or right-wing political talking points that a family member might bring up. After choosing a response, the user is told whether the response is right or wrong—with any genuine expression of a personal view being marked as “wrong” because it could agitate the Angry Uncle. Tacitly listening to an opposing perspective may be eye-opening, and may be the best strategy for maintaining a harmonious holiday season, but does not prompt the speaker to consider and validate the other side, and therefore loses its transformative power. Productive dialogue should treat disagreement and discomfort as opportunities to be embraced, not risks to be avoided.

Respectful, genuine dialogue across difference allows all participants to clarify their reasons for the opinions they hold, consider the blind spots in their perspectives and understand the values of those with opposing viewpoints. Our democracy demands engaged citizens who are willing to reconsider their opinions in light of exposure to new ideas and respect those who think differently. If someone’s value set revolves around the denial of others’ dignity and equality, that will become apparent in conversation, depriving the dialogue of its productive power. America will be better off if we respectfully talk about politics at the dinner table and recommend articles to our friends and family of different political persuasions. However, our campus and our country should be wary of the tendency to flaunt the existence of conversation without considering its quality and to fetishize dialogue at the expense of actual change.

Contact Courtney Cooperman at ccoop20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.