3 ways to avoid dinner table conflict this Christmas

Christmas lunch can be an oddly radical site for encounters with those we disagree with.

No event on the calendar is as simultaneously overwhelming and underwhelming as Christmas.

The tinsel, the gift lists, the kids’ concerts and award nights, the avalanche of food. The parties, the carols, the nostalgia, the David Jones Christmas windows, the goodwill of strangers, the passive-aggressive purgatory of the shopping centre carpark.

The family feuds, revived.

For some, Christmas is magical. For others, it’s a high-speed tiptoe through a minefield.

The last hurdle in this annual race is Christmas lunch. As we increasingly clump together throughout the year with friends, neighbours, and even colleagues who share our impeccably curated set of political opinions, the family dinner table remains one of the few places we interact with people we have not pre-screened. This makes it an oddly radical site for genuine encounters with those who think differently from us.

There are ways of minimising the risk of collision, of course. Duck and weave; studiously avoid politics, religion, and any flashpoints of family history.

Alternatively, know your minefield: which topics need to be given a wide berth, which might be safe for a controlled explosion. This list will vary according to your family members’ political leanings, tendency to aggression, and blood alcohol level.

For example. Asylum seeker policy, euthanasia: steer clear.

Safer: Trump (maybe), pollies’ citizenship woes, the AFL draft.

But if you’re feeling adventurous – a few things to keep in mind as stormclouds gather over the Christmas pudding.

1. Your brother-in-law is not rational – and neither are you

For a crash course in contemporary moral psychology, try Jonathan Haidt’s fabulous The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. One of its key insights is this: “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”

Haidt compares our moral reasoning to a person riding an elephant. We like to imagine that our rational minds (the rider) control or at least direct the rest of our mental and emotional processes (the elephant). The research makes a pretty convincing case that actually, when we get into an argument about right and wrong, we bend all our logical might to the task of defending what we instinctively believe – not to figuring out what must rationally be true. Like a press secretary spinning a presidential Tweet, or a lawyer going in to bat for a client, the rider exists primarily to serve the elephant, not the other way round.

This explains a lot of the heat produced by even apparently trivial arguments – and the extreme difficulty we have in changing each other’s minds. According to Haidt, people with higher IQs and education levels are no better at discovering this kind of truth than others, or at shifting their position when it’s legitimately challenged. They’re just better at coming up with more and more arguments to back up what they already think.

If that makes debate sound like a complete waste of time, Haidt advocates an old remedy: humility. This means attentiveness to what’s motivating our own arguments and leaps of illogic, as well as acknowledging what a complex and ticklish business it is to change our own minds, let alone somebody else’s.

2. Play the person, not the point

In football, the saying goes, “Play the ball, not the man” – the goal of the game is to get the ball where it needs to go, not to take down your opposing player. In poker it’s the opposite: “Play the man, not the cards/odds”. In a game of bluffing, what’s in your hand matters less than what the other person thinks is in your hand.

Christmas lunch is more like poker than football: relationship is everything.

Even if you think of yourself as a pure logic machine, your cousin or your brother’s girlfriend isn’t. If my eye is only on the point I’m so righteously trying to make, and not on the person across the table from me and how they’re being buffeted in the process, then I may win the battle but lose the war. If I’m arguing in such a way that it’s impossible for either of us to back down or concede a point without losing face – in short, if I’m being a jerk – then it’s time to dial it down.

If peace does not begin at home – where would we find the will to pursue it elsewhere in our lives?

John Newton, the 18th-century former slave trader and writer of “Amazing Grace”, once wrote to a friend who had asked his advice on a disagreement he was having. Newton alerted him to the danger of trying to “gain the laugh on your side”, to make the other guy look evil or ridiculous. Instead, he urges his friend to engage other people’s views with “the compassion due to the souls of men”. The souls of women, too.

3. Never Sometimes talk about politics or religion

If we can begin to master (1) and (2), that puts conversations previously labelled too hazardous to proceed back into play.

Since Brexit and Trump especially, the media is littered with laments over our fractured and polarised culture, and calls to emerge from our echo chambers and find a new willingness to listen to one another.

We have pursued tolerance – a mentality of live and let live – and, perhaps by aiming so low, have failed to reach even this bar. If we aspire to more than the absence of conflict; if we hope for an active peace, for civic friendship; then avoiding the difficult conversations isn’t going to be good enough.

Jonathan Haidt, writing about the poisonous political culture of Washington DC, suggests that one of the problems is that politicians have stopped moving their families to the capital – they fly in to do battle and then back to their home states to live their lives. This means their families no longer go to the same schools and play sport together; there is no longer a blurring of battle lines by genuine relationship.

Sometimes it’s harder to have these conversations with the people closest to us than with strangers. But if we can’t find a way to muddle through with the people we’re most deeply committed to – if peace does not begin at home – where would we find the will to pursue it elsewhere in our lives?

The wonderfully humane writer Marilynne Robinson says: “To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error.”

Peace on earth, goodwill to all. If there’s any time and place to start building bridges between ideological camps, Christmas and family are surely it.

This article first appeared at SBS.

Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Public Christianity. She has a PhD in English from the University of Cambridge, and is the author of Victorian Poetry and Modern Life: The Unpoetical Age.