By: Taylor Witter
Ah yes, the holidays are approaching. We already know what that means: family time, and lots of it. There is a high likelihood that the main conversation at any holiday dinner will be topics concerning 2020. I don’t think I am the only one who has had frustrating conversations with family members over the current state of the country’s political and social climate. I’m often left in a bitter state with the nagging question, “How could you think that?”. My mind flashes to the meme by Eddie Francis, which epitomizes the extremes we may find ourselves at due to familial conflict: “Y’all be mad…. Disowning family members… going to war at Thanksgiving. Calling Uncle Bob out in front of his kids. I’m here for it.” Contrary to what this meme suggests, is disowning Uncle Bob or other family members going to bring any relief to opposing views and heated debates? These tactics may ease the immediate discontent of heating arguments, but they leave the root of the discontent untouched. At the root are these fundamental questions: How can someone whom I love and whom I’ve shared so many common experiences with hold such a different view from me? And subsequently, how can we reconcile these views to grow our relationship and our understanding of the people around us?
I personally have struggled with the first question the most. The varying degrees to which two people can interpret the same experience is discombobulating. This is even more difficult to comprehend with family members, whom one shares many of their formative years with and some of their fondest memories, and therefore one would assume has a similar understanding of the world around them. Despite this commonality, conflict may still arise and once the conflict is established, it is easy to forget the love you have for the other person. Personally, I have found the greatest challenge in expressing love to family members after learning that they hold a view which, whether they recognize it or not, exacerbates the oppression of a group of people or undermines personal values critical to my own identity. I recently had a conversation with someone close to me who supported an organization that limited the rights of others. I left the conversation distraught by their stance, but also feeling foolish for believing in a fallacy of sameness, that because we were close we would be able to agree on significant matters. Their views felt like a betrayal of our relationship and an ambush on opinions so important to me.
How then, does it become possible to move through conflict and keep a relationship intact, or even more preferably, strengthen it? First, it is necessary to get rid of the idea that shared experiences imply similar perspectives. Once we can acknowledge that we will formulate different opinions, we can focus on how we respond to those differences. The key here is learning how to respond rather than react. A reaction only requires one to think their own thoughts, while a response requires engagement with the other person’s thoughts as the primary step. By responding, one is putting the other person first. This paves the way to hear and validate the other person, and the downstream effect will be a more productive, respectful conversation.
However, responding does not remedy all conflict, and many people will remain firm in their beliefs despite any evidence to the contrary. So how do we continue to love through the inability to reach any common ground? During the conversation with Dr. Amit Sood at the 2nd annual LGBTQI research conference, he commented on our relationships with people and how they have become more transactional. He noted a tendency to lead into conversations wanting to get something out of the other person. Yet human interactions were meant to be about connection and “…people are not a means to an end, they are an end in of themselves.” When we are able to speak with others from a place of wanting to know them and understand their experience, our relationships will transform and be based in respect and love. We can apply this to interactions with family to understand that when we engage with people we love, the purpose is to listen and connect, not change their point of view. The point of the conversation is the connection itself, not the outcome of the conversation.
So, through this holiday season and through navigating difficult discussions, remember that those we love may not be the same as us or hold the same views as us, but that is no reason to disengage. If anything, it is one of the strongest reasons to show up for them, validate their feelings, and remind them that whatever journey their perspective may travel, they will not go at it alone. As Loretta J Ross puts it, a Women and Gender Studies professor at Smith College, the path to understanding and progress lies in our ability to hear diverse voices, and “call them in” rather than call them out. “Some people you can work with and some people you can work around. But the thing I want to emphasize is that the calling-in practice means you always keep a seat at the table for them if they come back.” This is an invitation to call-in the people we can simultaneously love and disagree with – and to hold the emancipation papers on Uncle Bob.