If you're getting together with friends and family over the holidays—especially if you haven't seen one another in a while—it may feel daunting. What do you talk about? It's been a wild couple years.
Don't overthink it. If you want to avoid awkward conversations this Thanksgiving, just steer clear of contentious issues. Such as:
Okay, that was glib. This is a serious issue for a lot of people, as more political identities are superseding family bonds. Anxiety that people are feeling about communicating with family and friends is real; and withdrawing or cutting people off isn't productive. It's a microcosm of the challenge before the world.
The old adage "don't talk about politics" isn't sufficient for the moment. In the past, disagreements were more often about details and specific ways to interpret facts; not whether the facts are themselves all part of an enormous illusion in a war of good versus evil. Once, mentioning politics may have led to an argument over, say, the former president's foreign policy. It may have gotten intense and led to bitterness and resentment. But now that feels quaint. You don't have to invoke politics at all, and things might just as likely devolve into arguing over whether the president is indeed the president, or whether the insurrection was an elaborate illusion, or whether the world would be a safer place if teachers couldn't legallly discuss systemic racism but did have to carry guns.
So, what's to be done? If it were simple, you'd know already. But maybe this framework is helpful, at least in trying not to make things worse. It has been for me.
I think the story that Americans are "polarized" or whatever simplistic political frame you usually hear is wrong. And it's also too easy to blame bizarre beliefs on "misinformation." There has always been polarization, and there has always been misinformation. Things didn't always get so weird.
Chasing these specific, bizarre beliefs in attempt to "debunk" them with a barrage of information isn't an effective strategy. It can make things worse. The central appeal of such beliefs is their obscurity. They are supposedly forbidden. Those who adopt them are made to feel elite, subversive, powerful, awakened. To tell them not to believe it is to confirm their suspicion.
Rather people are familiar with the factual narrative. A bizarre belief is appealing because it's not the factual narrative. Sometimes that's the only appeal. And so by reiterating how many people believe the mainstream narrative, and how much evidence exists to support it, you may only be making the conspiracy theory feel more exciting, forbidden, appealing.
The more interesting question is what makes people insistently cling to that sort of belief even when the consequences are objectively real—and to believe something no matter what new evidence comes to light. In 2019, 62 percent of Trump acolytes said they would support him "no matter what." His assessment that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without consequence was dead on.
No politician should ever have that kind of blind allegiance. Nor should any belief about the world. But this kind of conviction-despite-evidence isn't a new phenomenon. The only difference in the moment is that it's being applied in areas typically reserved for more empirical modes of thinking. There seems to be a surge in demand for intense, unflappable conviction. And the supply chain of worthy causes is being diverted. So there's an unmet need being filled by bizarre placeholders.
We've all felt the appeal of superstition; believing something despite also knowing it's kind of silly. Or actually because we know it is. It's a sort of lingering hope that magic exists. Wearing a lucky pair of shoes, or baking a certain recipe a certain way, even when part of us knows that it probably makes no difference. A more-than-passing interest in UFOs or astrology might be appealing for the same reasons.
But in most cases, these things come as a mix of sincerity and knowingness. People who read their horoscope religiously only believe them up to a point. They wouldn't forego emergency surgery because mercury was in retrograde. It's one thing to harbor a suspicion that UFOs are dotting the sky every night. It's another to quit your job and become nocturnal in attempt to decipher patterns in the UFOs.
Instead, typically, even as we harbor superstitious and supernatural beliefs, we also continue to be curious. A person who genuinely believes they saw a UFO can also continue be open to—even enthusiastic about—new evidence that might explain what they actually saw that night. If it turned out to be a meteor, which had been photographed and documented extensively, they wouldn't traditionally insist that this "evidence" was all fabricated by BLM activists in attempt to destroy them.
This is what's off right now.
But that's essentially where we are. People are clinging to beliefs about, for example, vaccines and masks in the face of an ongoing pandemic. They are acting on that belief despite tangible consequences all around them; neighbors and friends getting sick and dying; people storming the U.S. capitol. Many people are reluctant to engage in earnest discussion even at the request of a loved one.
Whatever the particular belief, when this happens, it means a belief runs deep. It's no longer about evidence. The belief has become part of how a person understands themself. To question it amounts to an attack on that person, no matter how deftly and humanely the topic is raised, or how convincingly argued.
In my experience, in talking with and counseling people over the years who have all sorts of unfounded but deeply held beliefs about their health, my advice is this: When someone is effectively telling you that they've incorporated an idea into their identity, as a deeply-held belief, listen to them. Not because you need to agree with or even respect their belief, but because it's the human equivalent of a turtle going into its shell or a snake rattling its tail. At that point, their mind not going to change unless the person decides they're interested in examining the belief. Until then, you're only going to make it worse by forcing the point.
If and when they do abandon that belief, that part of their identity will need something else in its place. Ideally something humane, generous, rational, kind.
The hopeful note is that there's humanity in all of this. No matter how bizarre or even dangerous the belief, some part of it serves as a reminder that people want to feel included and enlightened, and to stand for something that they feel is consequential. A lot of people don't have that. Especially right now. Instead, we've felt especially isolated and purposeless these past two years. Last year, many people didn't gather with extended family and friends over winter holidays. Some have fallen out of touch with society generally. They've filled the void by spending a lot of time online consuming content designed not to inform but to anger and outrage. And to provide a sense of identity in a faceless world; a sense of belonging to something, anything. Politicians and profiteers have offered exactly that. You do not stand to help the situation by cutting ties or abandoning them, and certainly not by criticizing or condemning them.
If that feels tempting to do, remember that this general mode of thinking is familiar to all of us. We all do it, to some degree.
All of us have some beliefs that are derived more from a sense of feeling and belonging, a gut instinct, as opposed to an earnest attempt to make sense of all possible outcomes by pouring over facts and evidence empirically. We willfully ignore evidence, consciously or otherwise. Think of things like an allegiance to a favorite baseball team or pizza or city or car or dog. People will love the Cubs no matter who plays for them, no matter how many games they win, forever, no matter what.
This obviously isn't equivalent in consequence to a belief that vaccines contain tracking devices. But it's analogous in nature. It's not a matter of reason; it's a matter of identity and feeling. And this should inform how these beliefs are approached. No amount of facts and information and evidence is going to convince the die-hard White Sox fan that Wrigley Field is a better ballpark. A statistician isn't going to convince you to switch sides based on batting averages and on-base percentages. It's just not going to happen. If they tried, they wouldn't be speaking the same language.
That mode of allegiance and belief is universal. Many cultures explicitly encourage this approach to thinking when it comes to things like romance or religion. Spreadsheets of pros and cons aren't how you're "supposed" to figure out love or god or higher callings. You just believe, feel, and act. You build allegiances whose strength is their virtue. The allegiance becomes part of your identity, and that's that. It would be untenable if everyone were constantly questioning and re-evaluating and changing paths; jumping to new jobs and houses and families and friends as soon as new evidence comes to light. This mode of allegiance can serve us well as societies, allowing us to make decisions and commitments rather than constantly perseverating and seeking out better opportunities. It's evolutionarily adaptive, even if it seems irrational at times.
But we also apply these modes of thinking in ways that don't serve us, and can even be dangerous. They can be co-opted by people selling fiction, providing false hope and certainty, dividing us for personal gain. It would be a safer world for everyone if we could keep our irrational beliefs directed toward things like sports and sandwiches rather than vaccines and guns. Watching a football game, you can scream at the fans of the other team, but then also hang out the next day. When that same instinct is directed toward believing in imaginary plots to fabricate millions of votes in a presidential election, things get truly dangerous.
And that's what many people are doing with beliefs about COVID. People are choosing to align irrefutably with a tiny group of self-promoting charlatans and political opportunists, for reasons that transcend politics at a personal level. They suspend skepticism not because the people's arguments make sense, but because they offer something that facts and evidence can't. They provide certainty in a very uncertain world. They provide a feeling of belonging and conviction that's vital to all of us, and especially alluring in moments when people feel adrift.
The belief is false. But its value is real. Sometimes the best you can do is try to create that value in their lives, in other healthier ways.
Have a good holiday.
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My suggestions: let each guest know prior to the holiday that any discussion of controversial topics will be forbidden during the meal. Designate someone you trust—if possible, someone everybody respects—to organize parlor games, singing, etc.—keep the…