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How To Have Constructive Conversations At A Divisive Thanksgiving

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Thanksgiving is upon us, and once again, we suspect the political divides the country is living through may make for some awkward conversations at dinner tables. So we thought we'd try to help with that a little by talking to some folks who've been thinking about how to engage in more productive conversations and maybe even do a little bit to repair the social fabric.

Joining us to talk about this is Eric Liu. He's a writer and the director of the Aspen Institute's Citizenship and American Identity program and founder of Citizen University. He's with us from KUOW in Seattle.

Eric, welcome back.

ERIC LIU: It's great to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Vaile Wright. She is a clinical psychologist and director of research at the American Psychological Association. She's speaking to us from her home office in Chicago.

Vaile Wright, welcome to you.

VAILE WRIGHT: Happy to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: And finally, Steven Petrow, who is an opinion columnist for USA Today who writes frequently about manners and etiquette. He is with us from WUNC in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Steven Petrow, welcome back to you as well.

STEVEN PETROW: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: And, Steven, I'm going to start with you. You've been writing about this for a couple of years now - this topic of division around the holidays. Do you think it's getting worse?

PETROW: I most definitely think that it's getting worse. With the impeachment hearings going on and with the president tweeting, you know, on a daily basis, people are going to be coming to their Thanksgiving tables with all of this in their ears, and there's a lot of anxiety. People are nervous.

MARTIN: And, Vaile Wright, what about you? Without betraying any confidences...

WRIGHT: (Laughter).

MARTIN: I'm sure you see a lot of people who come to you with these kinds of questions. Do you think it's getting worse?

WRIGHT: I think that part of the issue is there's a lot of fatigue as well. I think people are just really tired of having to have these conversations year after year after year. But there is also anxiety.

MARTIN: And, Eric, what about you?

LIU: You know, I think actually this narrative has now existed for enough time, couple of years, that we're primed for it to be worse. I'm not actually sure that it is worse, but I think we're entering into the holiday season ready for it to be worse, which can sort of make it so.

MARTIN: That's an interesting point. So let me go back to Vaile Wright on this. You're - you are part of the American Psychological Association's Stress in America team. Is politics a part of that? Talk a little bit more about that. I mean, is Eric - do you think Eric's perception might be onto something here - that people think it's going to be bad, so they're primed for it to be bad?

WRIGHT: Well, we absolutely know that perceptions drive behavior. But what we also know from our Stress in America survey from this year is that 56% of Americans reported that the upcoming presidential election, which is a year away, is causing significant stress, which was much higher than what it was about four years ago.

MARTIN: So, with this in mind, Eric, you started something called the Better Arguments Project. Tell me more about that. I mean, do Americans need to have better arguments?

LIU: Yeah. Well, this is a project that's a collaboration of the Aspen Institute, a great nonprofit called Facing History and Ourselves and the Allstate Corp. And what we did in creating this project is actually to question the premise. We don't necessarily need fewer arguments in American civic life. We just need less stupid ones. And not to be glib - that means arguments that are more rooted in fact and history, more emotionally intelligent and more honest about power differentials.

And I think we can, in fact, learn how to come together by arguing, counterintuitive as that may sound, if we pay a little bit more attention to the buttons that we get pushed and the patterns that we fall into and how we can actually - as, you know, Steven and Vaile have been saying - really humanize each other as we enter into these arguments and not just default to social media posturing.

MARTIN: Steven, there's another point you made in your piece that surprised me a bit because one of the things that's distinguished your work in recent years is you are very much about, you know, try to keep the family together.

PETROW: Yes.

MARTIN: Find ways to keep - you know, highlight the relationships. But one of the things you say in this piece this year which kind of surprised me is you said, you know what? It's OK to ban the bad actor. You say, you know, if you've got somebody in your family who just refuses to not make racist comments or whatever, it's OK to say, hey, you can't come. And I was a little surprised by that. What brought you to that?

PETROW: I'll tell you that actually is a new piece of advice that has come about in watching families over the last several years. When there are very toxic people who are hurtful to others, then it is time to - you know, to kind of draw a line in the sand and say, I'm sorry. You're not invited this year. You know, we can revisit at another time. But, you know, this is not healthy, and I need to really look for the common good at my table. It kind of breaks my heart, though, Michel, to have said that.

MARTIN: Yeah. I was going to say, have you ever had to do that?

PETROW: I have not had to do that, fortunately. But I know other families that have, and it's a very painful situation.

MARTIN: That could be kind of - I think that could have a knock-on effect that could be - I don't know. That could be - I don't know. What do you say about that, Vaile Wright? I think this is kind of your wheelhouse.

WRIGHT: Yeah. I think families really have a decision to make. I think there's nothing wrong with families making the choice to not talk about politics. But there are pros and cons. The pro might be that you do avoid conflict. The con, of course, is that you're maintaining the status quo.

MARTIN: So tell me more about that, Vaile, because one of the things that interests me about the current political moment is how many people on either side of the divide see themselves as victims, right?

WRIGHT: Well, I think to Steven's point, if somebody is spewing bigotry at your table, whether they're family or not, you have no - there's no reason why you would have to ever put up with that - that you never have to put up with someone demeaning you in any way whatsoever.

I think part of the problem, however, is that we're avoiding having these conversations because we've gotten away from talking about the issues, and instead we're talking about politics. I think if we can stick to the issues, whether that issue is health care, immigration, climate change, then the conversations can be more productive. Because I've never heard anybody say to me, well, I just don't care about health care. Everybody cares. We just might have different solutions to the problem.

MARTIN: And what's the benefit, Vaile, of talking about this at Thanksgiving? Because I - some people will be, like, no, No. Talk about the new Tom Hanks movie.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That's - everybody can agree on - what, Vaile, is the benefit of talking about these things at Thanksgiving?

WRIGHT: I think one of the benefits is, as we've mentioned, it's the one time of the year when everybody comes together kind of regardless of often religion or other ways that we celebrate. And so it may be the only chance that you have to talk to that cousin or that uncle that you never really get to see but who you know has different opinions. And maybe you'd just like to understand each other better to help improve your relationship.

MARTIN: OK. Other practical advice here for navigating this - Steven.

PETROW: Well, you know, I was going to say that there are different ways to talk about politics. And I often go back to John McCain, who was really beloved by both Democrats and Republicans because he had a philosophy of never making it personal. You stay to the issues. And so, you know, if we're going to be talking about climate change or LGBTQ rights, you know, keep it to the issues.

But no name-calling. And, you know, for folks who are thinking about wearing a cap to dinner that says, you know, make America great again or make racism go away again - you know, none of that. You know, kind of keep it to the issues and to the facts. And we'll be hurting less people that way.

MARTIN: OK. Can I just first of all say there should be no baseball caps at the table?

PETROW: (Laughter).

MARTIN: I'm so sorry. Unless you're eating outside in the barn...

PETROW: I agree.

MARTIN: There should be no caps at the table.

PETROW: No caps.

MARTIN: Can I just throw down the gauntlet there?

PETROW: I agree with you. But somebody may say, OK, boomer, Michel.

LIU: (Laughter).

MARTIN: They can say that, but they won't be eating my food with a baseball cap at my table. Nor cell phones either - just saying. Eric, what about you - practical tips for having better conversations at Thanksgiving - even tough ones.

LIU: I would slightly differ from my colleagues here on their focus on issues. I think there's a step prior to issues. I think we ought to actually invite people to talk about how their values were formed. How was your worldview formed? What big influences, formative experiences, good or bad, shape the way you see the world, shape the way you think about compassion, shape the way you think about responsibility?

And everybody has a story to tell. And it actually - number one, it humanizes people. But number two, it gets you out of that practice talking point repetition mode that modern politics puts people in where you just remember what you heard on MSNBC or Fox News and spew it back at somebody about issue X or Y. When you actually talk about the underlying sources of issues, you - first of all, you humanize.

But second of all, I think you get to this point where you learn how to take responsibility. This dynamic, Michel, that you were describing of everyone wants to imagine that they are the victim leads to this dynamic where you want to accuse somebody in order to excuse yourself.

And I think if we actually take responsibility first and say, look - this is how my worldview is shaped. This is where, you know, the good, the bad and the ugly of how I've come to see the world. And you have to remember, it is impossible to change someone else's mind if you're not willing to have your own mind changed.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, what is each of your favorite thing about Thanksgiving? We're going to end on a positive note. Vaile, you want to start?

WRIGHT: Not really, but I'll try.

MARTIN: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

WRIGHT: Yeah. This is actually the first time I'll be home with my family in about 12 years, so I'm really looking forward to just sitting down with my family and eating some good stuffing.

MARTIN: That's awesome.

That's Vaile Wright, a clinical psychologist and director of research at the American Psychological Association.

Steven, what's your favorite thing about Thanksgiving?

PETROW: Well, you know, one of my favorite things, which is pecan pie.

MARTIN: (Imitating Steven Petrow) Pee-kan (ph) pie. Oh, sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Pi-kahn (ph) or pee-kan...

PETROW: Pi-kahn (ph), pi-kahn...

MARTIN: Pi-kahn, pi-kan...

LIU: This is a great division.

MARTIN: Yes. We've never resolved this.

PETROW: We've never resolved that. But the other is, you know, I think we have a very difficult time expressing gratitude 364 days of the year. And I think that Thanksgiving is a time when I really can do that with people that I love.

MARTIN: That's Steven Petrow, opinion columnist for USA Today. He has a column out today about how to navigate awkward political conversations.

Thank you so much for joining us.

And, Eric Liu, what's your favorite thing about Thanksgiving?

LIU: Well, my favorite thing about Thanksgiving is just that it expresses this deep thing that has often gone missing in American civic life, which is ritual - shared ritual, people not being in isolation, people being together to express that gratitude, yes, but also to remember that nothing happens in this country without us coming together to try to make it happen. And that can be the making of a meal. That can be having of an argument. But it also can just be simply expressing that sense that we are trying our best to make this thing work. I love that ritual.

MARTIN: That was Eric Liu, director of the Aspen Institute's Citizenship and American Identity program and founder of Citizen University.

Thank you so much for talking to us. Thank all of you so much for talking to us. Happy Thanksgiving to you all, and I wish you all...

PETROW: Happy Thanksgiving.

LIU: Happy Thanksgiving.

MARTIN: ...Excellent pie, flaky crust and great conversations. Thank you all so much for talking to us.

LIU: Thank you.

PETROW: You too.

WRIGHT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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