Photo by Carol Yepes
Artillery Row

Fightin’ around the Christmas tree

How should we talk about politics with our “evil” relatives?

The festive season is upon us, and with it comes that familiar moral dilemma. How should you, a perfect person, cope with family gatherings when some of your relatives are evil scum? There are, thankfully, plenty of tips for dealing with this. Indeed, guides to eating the roast your mum has cooked (without becoming tainted by her hateful views) have become a genre in their own right. It’s one with which I’ve become slightly obsessed.

The first time I became aware of it was when I encountered a guide to dealing with “a TERF at your Thanksgiving gathering”. As someone who has been called a TERF, I did wonder at its “jokey” recommendations to either physically assault (“throw a turkey at them”) or casually bully (“ignoring them works; so does repeating everything they say back to them in a mocking tone”). Coming from the UK, I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, so these aren’t actual worries for me (indeed, since Thanksgiving is problematic, maybe I should apply the rules to “dealing with people who celebrate Thanksgiving if they come to my less problematic gathering”). In any case, the piece is a classic example of genre.

Key features in pieces like this are ageism (the evil person is always older, usually an aunt or uncle, but sometimes writers go all out and make it their mums), a staggering sense of moral and intellectual superiority (the older person is just a moron who won’t benefit from your all-round wonderfulness — “sit at the kids’ table and radicalise them instead, it’s more effective and lots more fun”), blithe ignorance with regard to the cost of challenging relatives who actually are angry or potentially violent, pride at having established which members of your family are on the right side of history (you) and which ones aren’t (everyone else, pretty much). Look, you’re not like the others! You always knew you were special.

Better to stoke up the pre-emptive hostility than risk agreeing with Aunt Karen

To be honest, part of the reason I am fascinated by this genre is that there’s a part of me that’s been drawn to this thinking, too. I don’t vote the same way as most of my family. There’s something that appeals to one’s vanity in reminding yourself that you came to your “better” politics all by yourself (a political version of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps). Rather than feel bad about coming from wrong-side-of-history stock, why not dwell on your own exceptional status? Apart from anything else, it can be a way of de-personalising family tensions and traumas that are far more specific and hard to unravel. It can also be a way of making sure that your own politics aren’t contaminated by too much empathy for the enemy. Better to stoke up the pre-emptive hostility than risk suddenly finding yourself agreeing with Aunt Karen.

I recently talked to another woman who has been deemed a TERF — someone who, like me, had once had what she felt were basically respectable left-wing feminist politics — about whether this experience has made us more generous and open to other political positions. Certainly, knowing that in the minds of many, the Christmas guest I’d be is “the stupid bigot who’s too old to know who Judith Butler is” — and not “the cool feminist with a razor-sharp grasp of the ways of the patriarchy” — has made me question some of my own drive to categorise others. As someone who voted Remain in a family where most people were Leavers, I was for instance quite desperate to see the alternative position as rooted entirely in racism and xenophobia. I suspect I was more desperate than I would have been had everyone in my family agreed with me. There was, I now think, a creeping anxiety that none of it had anything to do with virtue. I could have gone the other way. Our families can make us uncomfortably aware of how flimsy our big moral narratives are. I’d think, “They all see me as someone who went to an elite university down south and got ideas from reading The Guardian!” — except that is true. How else should I be seen? As someone who’s innately, inherently more virtuous than them? As someone whose views aren’t contingent on the people I’ve met and the things I’ve read, but emerge from my pure, righteous core? As someone who couldn’t, perhaps, even now, have got things wrong?

It’s not that I think the family could be the place where political polarisation melts away. The last political conversation I had with my own mum before she died was in November 2019, shortly before the December General Election. I felt as though I could practically see the things we were saying flying past one another, never meeting. We were each talking to imaginary versions of one another, despite being in the same room. I thought she was conflating my criticism of one candidate with total adoration of the other, yet if I’m honest, I was doing the same to her. It was very odd to know it was happening — to actually hear my own words going through the “liberal elite Corbynite Remainer” voice modulator the moment they left my mouth — yet I couldn’t stop it. This was not a space upon which we could meet; not, I suspect, because our views of other human beings were all that different, but because there’s not enough time (certainly not over one lunch) to work through thirty years of learning to only hear some words and not others. I wish I had had more generosity, but, really, I wish we had talked about something else.

This would, I suppose, be my advice to dealing with your “evil” relative. Be generous; consider you might be wrong; talk about something else. Alas, none of it sounds very exciting. The strange joy of the “morally defective family members at Christmas” article lies in its naked arrogance, plus that delicious misanthropy which somehow sees itself as empathy. It doesn’t do to have too much of that, though. Just remember: one day, the person on the wrong side of a flying roast turkey could be you.

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