How [and why] to have hard conversations! (Family holiday edition)

Here come the turkeys.

It’s time once again for the increasingly ragged American tradition of sitting around a cluttered dinner table with people you love but have issues with, trying to make the occasion about gratitude, and trying not to trip any of the land mines nestled between the cranberries and gravy.

Chief among the nestled dangers for many of us is political difference, and this year’s is a real elephant! But regardless of the particular issues on the table any given year, this is the week when folks ask questions that start with “What should I do if…” and end with some version of a painful ethical dilemma that hinges on balancing family harmony with giving a pass to expressions of harmful or hateful views.

Not all political differences get expressed as hateful views of course, and there are lots of other uncomfortable conversations you might trip over while you’re home. But the challenges of civic discourse now are potent enough to be useful to think through.

Here’s a few good responses to the issue that all take the “say something” perspective. I basically agree with this approach, though it’s difficult.

The problematic myth of Thanksgiving

Ashley Nicole McCray and Lawrence Ware, “Decolonizing the History of Thanksgiving”

Philip Deloria, “The Invention of Thanksgiving”

Racism (and other Wrong Views) at the dinner table

Doyin Richards, “What To Do About Your Racist AF Uncle At Thanksgiving”

Amy McCarthy, “You’re Morally Obligated to Call Out Your Racist Relatives at Thanksgiving”

Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, “How to Talk to Your Family About Racism on Thanksgiving”

Those are all good essays coming from a social justice perspective. But I also find myself asking:

WWBD [What Would the Buddha Do]?

We’ve been talking about Right Speech all month at Satsang, and in the Buddha’s teachings on speech, in the guidelines for the 4th precept and the 3rd limb of the Eightfold Path, there’s a very strong emphasis on refraining from speech that’s divisive or harsh. (The standard list is to refrain from speech that is false, divisive, harsh, and “idle chatter.”)

Stopping yourself from using harsh speech is self-restraint 101, and as with all the willful renunciations, the main practice is slowing down the pathway between impulse and action. Get a #PauseForPrecepts checkpoint up between your emotional nervous system and your mouth, and consider renewing your intentions for how you want to practice with speech before you walk through the door. It’s totally possible to call out hateful speech, stand up for justice, and make the dinner table a safer space, all without being harsh or hateful yourself.

But refraining from “divisive speech” may be more difficult. Because keeping silent can feel like keeping the peace, and speaking up may feel like throwing a match into dry grass, we might feel like the Buddha is saying “just let it go.” In some cases, I think the teachings do lean in that direction, especially in the emphasis on equanimity, tolerance, and how everyone is the owner of their actions (meaning, “not each others’”). But especially for those of us who are white, or in other ways come from privileged backgrounds, it’s important to look closely at how we interpret this teaching.

If it’s more comfortable to stay silent, we may be tempted to use the teaching on equanimity as a justification for not challenging oppressive views. Part of privilege is having choice around when and how to engage with harmful or inappropriate speech. Part of privilege also quite commonly includes having been raised in families where not rocking the boat is the expectation or norm. But if we can separate our attachment to comfort from our intention to uphold the precepts, we may more easily feel our responsibility to speak up. How exactly to do so still can be complicated, and the precept against divisive speech can still be confusing.

Basically, is it divisive to speak up when something hateful or harmful is said?

Is family unity worth it, when to maintain unity seems to mean tolerating the intolerable?

An important distinction here is between actual unity and the illusion of unity. If someone in the family is expressing views that are pungent enough for you to be trying to figure out how to respond, there has already been divisive speech. And if there’s already tension in the room, speaking to it does not increase the tension — it only makes it more visible. And if our aim is healing, then making our ailments more visible is generally the right thing to do, and anyway is the only way to relieve the tension that doesn’t just bury it for the kids to have to deal with.

Another important distinction is around how we define “divisive.” Divisive speech as Buddhist teachings use the term is speech that has as its intention the dividing of people against each other, the separating of a cohesive group into factions. Once again, as in all the Buddhist teachings on action, the intention behind a given action is important, and is different from its impact. Both are important. If the intention of the stereotypical “racist relative” in the Thanksgiving examples is to #OwnTheLibs, maybe you or someone else there, their intent is divisive.

If your (usually unconscious) intention in responding is to own them back or to score a point for your team, then you’ve fallen into the trap of responding to divisive speech with more divisive speech. If, on the other hand, your response hits the sweet spot of responding with clarity and compassion based in your intention to be a voice against oppression, you’ve spoken toward unity and the resolution of social differences even if in the moment it seems to make things worse.

That said, it’s still not easy, mainly because it’s never as clear-cut as “good you, evil relatives!” Their intent may also be clarity, and yours muddied by indignation. There almost certainly is trauma in the room — maybe yours, maybe others’, most likely both. And no matter our values, we very often still do a kind of cost-benefit analysis on speaking up. Because it’s also privilege to be able to blow up the family dinner to push back against systems of oppression. If your safety, or desperately-needed financial support, or ability to care for a relative who needs you, depends on keeping the peace, it’s a different calculus. What’s important here is that we don’t choose our actions based on the unconscious habit of avoiding discomfort.

I think Michelle Obama is still right about taking the “high road,” even in a very low road political ecosystem. From a Buddhist perspective, how we respond to incivility is as important as that we respond. This goes back to the intention piece. Even though the impact of words is very real, and intention doesn’t excuse unconscious bias, everyone still is the owner of their own actions, and that means even the righteous. If we go into a charged family dinner with the view that the most important thing is to tend our own hearts, and the mind states that inevitably follow our words, we bring our practice of mindfulness and kindness with us into a place where they’re really needed. The chance we’ll stay in touch with our intentions to support the wholesome and respond skillfully to the unwholesome are far greater.

The holiday of Thanksgiving is challenged in so many ways, from the systemic wounds of colonialism and genocide to the family wounds that may have nothing to do with the holiday but come out when everybody’s together and the carb crash hasn’t kicked in yet. Remember that you can always get up and walk out of the room (or the house). And short of that dramatic but sometimes totally appropriate solution, remember that your words affect your own heart as much as anyone else’s, and try to say things you’ll be comfortable carrying around for the rest of your life. This political moment will pass, thank god/dess, as will the hour at the dinner table, no matter how painful the conversation. The relationships we call “family” do not pass so quickly, but they too will change, and sooner than we think be lost to time, mortality, and the angel of history.

We carry our own actions forward more fully than anyone else, and even if we choose how to respond to others purely out of the wish for a personal future free of regret for words said or unsaid, we have a good chance of making a wise choice. Whatever kind of dinner tables you find yourself around this week, I wish you strength of heart and mind to do what’s right, for your own sake and the future well-being of all our relations.

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