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Family Matters: How To Avoid Talking Politics Over Thanksgiving Dinner, In 5 Steps

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One in five voters says political disagreements have hurt their relationships with friends or family, according to a new poll from The New York Times and Sienna College. And in a world where work/life balance is now just life, understanding how to communicate around sensitive political issues can provide vital guidance on how to address touchy subjects at work. Here’s why: Pew Research reports that nearly half of all Americans have stopped talking about politics with someone, as a result of something they said, either in person or online. Not surprising, when 85% of American voters feel misunderstood by voters on the other side. What happens when the “other side” is really just Uncle Tim from Topeka, sharing his polarizing opinions over mashed potatoes and pie? Since rudeness is on the rise, discussion without disagreement just might be the Thanksgiving recipe that every family needs.

Jamie Clayton, CEO of Oakland Family Services, says, “Don’t enter into a conversation where you’re going to disagree, if you don’t want to sit and listen to the other person’s point of view. A lot of the time, we’re not listening. We’re trying to come up with our own comeback. You can have discussions and you can disagree without being disagreeable.”

One way to avoid the confrontational conversation, according to Sally Plass, an Indiana-based specialist in manners and social graces, is to simply keep politics off the table. “There are certain things as a guest or host you shouldn’t bring up,” she shares. But what about the past posts and memes on social media? What then? When asked about political dialogue, people point to Facebook as an aggravating factor, a space where relationships and politics seemed to collide unavoidably.

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“It’s like you’re walking down the street and you see someone holding up a stupid sign, but the person holding up that sign is someone you care about,” Nelson Aquino tells the New York Times, from his home in Orlando. “You want to be like, ‘Put down that sign and go home.’ And you start having these arguments.” Have you been there?

It’s a sign of our times: you can’t unring a bell. But just because you hear a bell doesn’t mean you have to do something to fix it, or try to change its tone. (In an unconfirmed holiday story, that bell may just mean that an angel gets his wings). Here are some ideas from the experts, on how to avoid arguments this Thanksgiving.

  1. Reframe and Redirect – a simple agreement can help to shift perspectives, and redirect potential conflict. Can we agree not to talk about politics at dinner? Come together as a family and share beforehand that the dinner table is a safe space, and gain agreement so that there’s no misunderstanding. Consider topics that make more sense: what you are grateful for, what you appreciate most in your career and in other people, and what you value (outside of politically-charged issues) most in life. Isn’t there enough to discuss without debating election results for dessert?
  2. Keep Calm and Carry On – What happens when Uncle Tim violates the prime directive, and brings politics into the conversation? Robert Carini is a sociologist at the University of Louisville. He suggests that if a friend or relative brings up politics just to get a reaction, remain calm. “One way to win an argument is to make someone lose it,” Carini tells the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Families are way too good at pushing people’s buttons. So don’t let them.” You can always choose how you react, even when your button is pushed. That pause is always possible, even at holiday gatherings.
  3. Don’t Try to Win – Suzanne Degges-White, Chair of the Department of Counseling at Northern Illinois University, reminds us that attacking someone’s favorite sports team is not a battle you will ever win. So why try with someone’s political point of view? “You need to keep the conversation only about individual issues,” she says, pointing to an emotional and personal context to frame the conversation. “If you want people to see things from your side you need to connect it to a person’s emotions. For example, with the issue of equal pay for women — people are more likely to connect to the issue if you bring it down to their level. Say something like, ‘Now how would you feel if your daughter worked just as hard as a man in her office but was paid much less?’” Yet an even-handed approach will not guarantee an even-handed response. Dr. Vaile Wright, a researcher at the American Psychological Association, says, “Even if you are the best communicator in the world, you still may not get the outcome you want.” Are you ok with that? How bad do you need to win this one? If your answer is anything other than, “not at all”, pump the brakes on the political convo, and pass the gravy instead.
  4. Avoid Labels and Characterizations – When you receive a response to your individually-focused questions, avoid labeling the conversation or the response. “I would expect that kind of narrow-minded reply, coming from you,” isn’t going to strengthen your relationship. “Most socialists/uneducated fools/racists/Boomers would respond like that, I see your point.” Yikes – full stop. Remaining neutral is the key, even when confronted with what might seem like outrageous beliefs and viewpoints. Are you there to fix Uncle Tim, or find out more about his point of view? If the answer is the former, and you can’t remain neutral about the latter, it’s time to change the topic of conversation.
  5. Curious, Not FuriousBraver Angels is a New York-based organization dedicated to bridging the political divide in this country. Mónica Guzmán, author of I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times, shares in the Braver Angels podcast that curiosity is the key. She says that the political divide has become “a funhouse mirror” – with distortion and exaggeration at its core. “When you are judgmental, you can’t be curious,” she notes, “and when you are curious, you can’t be judgmental.” The only way to navigate these difficult conversations is through a detached spirit of curiosity, where learning is more important than fixing.

When we take sides over political issues, during family gatherings, we are creating the kind of division that we wish to eliminate. Just as you may not like broccoli, there’s no reason to engage in a dialogue that’s distasteful. Why would you serve something to someone else, if you know it’s going to get a negative reaction? Similarly, as you identify your own tastes, take time to respect the views of others. A respectful approach isn’t surrender, it’s wisdom. You aren’t forgetting your values, or your viewpoints – you are simply putting your attention on what matters most. Trying to change someone’s mind is a recipe for a fight, not the ingredients for a memorable holiday. Let go of the need to fix, to correct, to win. Focus on what matters most: keeping calm, staying curious, and reminding Uncle Tim that your relationship is much more important than who he voted for in the last election.

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Opinion: Can coal be a pivot toward 'normal politics' in Alberta? – Calgary Herald

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“Normal Politics”: I encouraged my students to embrace and practice this type of politics. Bernard Crick, a British political theorist, imagined this concept decades ago. He believed healthy democratic politics demanded empathy for your political opponents and searching for policies able to reconcile or bridge competing positions. At its best, normal politics is about finding or creating and implementing consensus. It invites political opponents to recognize they have some shared values and to work together to realize them. 

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Sadly, normal politics rarely characterizes politics in today’s democracies. Its antithesis is too common in political debate. In Alberta recently, the executive director of Take Back Alberta, an interest group that helped propel Danielle Smith into the premier’s office, accused the New Democratic Party of promoting a “toxic and disease-ridden ideology.” Such extremism slams the door on Crick’s hopeful view of politics.   

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With the legislature back in session, I don’t expect to see a lot of normal politics on display. But, in her recent television address, Premier Danielle Smith told Albertans she “must be humble, listen and continue to learn from you.” Alberta’s coal debate issue gives her an exceptional opportunity to back that commitment up with meaningful action.   

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Coal has been one of Alberta’s most contentious issues over the past several years. It’s an issue where a consensus exists, a consensus that could be strengthened. As hard as it may be for some residents of the Crowsnest Pass to accept, most Albertans don’t believe coal mining should have a future anywhere in the Rockies and foothills of Alberta’s Eastern Slopes. Impressive majorities of Albertans have said as much in public opinion polls, the Grassy Mountain coal mine hearings and the Coal Policy Committee consultations.  

Smith’s government should listen to and implement this consensus. In this legislative session, the premier should introduce legislation guaranteeing that coal mining proposals in our southern Rockies and foothills cannot be revived.  

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But I think Crick would want the premier to go one step further. I think he would invite her to try to broaden the consensus, to try to bridge the gulf between coal mining opponents and supporters. Identify positions those camps share; build on them. Community prosperity in southwest Alberta is an obvious candidate here.  

So far Alberta’s debate about coal has offered thin gruel when it comes to what economic future could be built in southern Alberta without coal mining. The UCP and NDP alike must pay serious attention to nurturing in the southwest the range of economic activities central to Alberta’s developing post-industrial society.  

What does this perspective recommend? Begin to craft a regional development strategy. Several paths lead in this direction. One would be to establish a Southern Alberta Sustainable Economic Opportunities Forum. Invite leaders from Alberta academia, business, the federal government, First Nations, labour and municipalities to join it. Task them with thinking about how, without coal, healthy and prosperous livelihoods may be delivered to the people of southwest Alberta. Or, strike an all-party legislative committee, chaired jointly by the UCP and NDP, to do something similar. If this venture bears fruit, it could be replicated for other regions in Alberta.  

Coal offers Smith the opportunity to pivot toward normal politics and show her commitment to listening to Albertans is genuine. Coal has opened the door to privileging conciliation in politics. If the premier goes through that door, she may be able to deliver what all sides of Alberta’s coal debate seek: good, healthy livelihoods for the people of southern Alberta.  

Ian Urquhart is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alberta. 

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Alberta deputy premier says sovereignty act not a power grab, eyes changes to bill

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Alberta deputy premier says sovereignty act not a power grab, eyes changes to bill

Alberta’s deputy premier says amendments may be needed to clear up confusion over a bill that grants Premier Danielle Smith and her cabinet unfettered power outside the legislature to rewrite laws and direct agencies to resist federal rules.

“We will consider amendment(s) to Bill 1 to clarify this to avoid confusion,” said Kaycee Madu in a series of Twitter posts on Wednesday and Thursday.

Madu said his reading of the bill indicates that cabinet does not have such power and all unilateral cabinet decisions would still have to go back to the legislature for approval.

“It then goes through the normal cabinet process and ultimately a bill will be tabled,” wrote Madu, who is a lawyer and Alberta’s former justice minister.

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However, the bill does not state that cabinet decisions made under the act would have to go back to the house.

Madu’s office did not return a request for comment or explanation about whether amendments are coming. Smith’s other deputy premier, Nathan Neudorf, has said he, too, believes legislative safeguards are in place but he hasn’t read the eight-page bill.

Justice Minister Tyler Shandro, who is helping Smith shepherd the bill through the house, told reporters he wasn’t aware of Madu’s comments. He said the United Conservative Party government is listening to reaction and concerns.

“We’re hearing the feedback on opportunities to make (the bill) more clear,” said Shandro. “No decisions have been made (on amendments).”

The bill, titled the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act, was introduced Tuesday by Smith.

Smith has described it as a deliberately confrontational tool to reset the relationship with a federal government she accuses of interfering in constitutionally protected areas of provincial responsibility from energy development to health care.

Political scientists, the Opposition NDP and constitutional experts say the bill grants sweeping powers to cabinet that are normally reserved for extreme circumstances, like natural disasters, that require swift legislative action.

Those changes, they say, make it dangerous to democracy.

Under the bill, cabinet would decide when Ottawa is interfering in Alberta jurisdiction through a law, policy or program or through a looming federal initiative it believes may cause harm.

Cabinet would send a resolution to the legislative assembly spelling out the nature of the harm and the remedies to fix it.

If the legislature gives its approval, that is where its involvement ends and cabinet takes over.

The bill grants cabinet powers to unilaterally rewrite laws without sending them back to the legislature for debate or approval. Cabinet would be allowed to direct public agencies, including police, municipalities, school boards, post-secondary institutions and health regions to flout federal laws.

The bill gives cabinet wide latitude on how to interpret the resolution it receives from the assembly. It says cabinet “should” follow the direction of the house, but doesn’t mandate it. Instead, cabinet is told to exercise its new extraordinary powers however it deems “necessary or advisable.”

Smith and other members of her front bench are in lockstep on saying the bill stipulates direct legislative oversight over cabinet’s actions.

She repeated it in the house Thursday.

Smith also accused the Opposition NDP of “fear-mongering” that “somehow this act gives power to cabinet to unilaterally alter legislation behind closed doors, despite the fact that it does not.”

NDP Leader Rachel Notley responded, “We have heard from no less than seven different legal experts, public servants and constitutional lawyers, who confirm a simple truth: this bill gives the premier the so-called Henry VIII power to write laws behind closed doors with zero input from this assembly.”

Law professor Martin Olszynski, who has written extensively on Smith’s bill since she first proposed it in the spring, said it clearly gives cabinet unfettered power to rewrite laws. He asked why, if the bill respects the existing legislative process, as Madu contends, is it needed at all?

“On its face, this is absurd,” Olszynski, with the University of Calgary, said in an interview.

Constitutional law professor Eric Adams at the University of Alberta agreed that what Madu said doesn’t square with the text of the bill.

“I can’t see anything in Section 4 (of the bill) that says the cabinet is required to table an amendment and subject it to the normal legislative process,” said Adams.

“Section 4 would seem to say the opposite.

“I’m confused by the government’s suggestions otherwise.”

Smith has delivered a mixed message on how the bill would ultimately be used.

On Tuesday, her office sent documentation to reporters saying the government hopes to use it in the spring, but that same day she told a news conference it’s a last-resort bill and she hopes to never use it.

Indigenous leaders have criticized the bill as heavy-handed and divisive. Business groups, including the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, warn that its legal uncertainty is not good for business and investment.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2022.

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Stop Passing Off Politics as Evidenced-Based Medicine

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As political campaigns have increasingly targeted medical practice issues, there have been a spate of articles and op-eds about the apparent corruption of medicine by politics. The American Medical Association believes it is a significant problem, because it has proposed a solution to keep politics out of medicine. Nevertheless, it seems as though doctors and other healthcare workers have been steamrolled by the political system into surrendering their autonomy and medical decision-making.

I was reminded of this grim reality when Mehmet Oz, MD, said that a woman’s right to an abortion was between herself, her doctor, and her local politicians. It’s bad enough that physicians’ political views and party affiliations affect their treatment decisions, but do we really need politicians meddling in the doctor-patient relationship?

It’s no surprise that medical professionals have been guided by their own political ideology to either combat elected officials or join them — depending on the issue. And therein lies the real problem. We have abandoned science and scientific reasoning to further our personal agendas on “the issues,” leading the medical profession into an internecine war and causing further divisiveness among physicians and the practice guidelines and standards promulgated by them.

For example, Florida has effectively banned physicians from aiding in the “transition” of transgender youth in Florida, creating considerable animus and essentially taking the matter out of the hands of practicing physicians. The Florida Board of Medicine plans to codify into law its own uniquely derived standards for the treatment of gender dysphoria.

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It doesn’t matter that Florida’s standards deviate widely from those of a half-dozen medical societies and organizations. The point is, other than providing comments to the Florida Board of Medicine, practicing physicians will have no real input into the final version of the treatment standards. Instead, those who serve on the Florida Board of Medicine will call the shots — and we can’t ignore the fact that all physicians who are board members are appointed by the governor.

Make no mistake, it is not uncommon to become ideologically blind to science when working for powerful people and even weaker sources of influence. Physicians believed pharmaceutical salespeople did not affect their choice of therapy, but studies proved them wrong.

Do No Harm, a non-profit organization, is a key proponent of Florida’s ban on gender-assisted therapy. In a letter to the Florida Board of Medicine, Stanley Goldfarb, MD, founder and chairman of Do No Harm, accuses the medical establishment of refusing “to side with science.” But whose version of science are we talking about: those in the medical profession who cite favorable outcomes following gender transition therapy, or those who point to its possible harmful and irreversible effects?

The debate reminds me of how two (or more) scientific societies can review the extant medical literature and relevant scientific studies, yet propose vastly different practice guidelines, as was the case with Lyme disease a decade ago. The Attorney General of Connecticut had to intervene to help align the discordant guidelines so that patients could be properly treated. Once again, because of our internal struggles to understand science, its limitations, and applications to medical practice, autonomy and self-determination were stripped from us.

The founder of Do No Harm was troubled by the impact of racial reckoning on medical practice, specifically, he was concerned about claims that systemic racism is responsible for disparities in health outcomes. The issues identified by Do No Harm on their website and in the news are perhaps the most vexing in medical education and practice today: affirmative action admission policies; mandatory anti-racism training; and divisive and possibly race-based discriminatory practices at universities and medical schools that violate academic freedom.

My hope is that we can discuss these (and other) topics without politicians in the exam room. I want to engage in passionate (not over-heated) discussions about social determinants of health, the injection of identity politics into medical research and education, and the validity of implicit bias and whether it contributes to microaggressions. I want to hear more from workers on both sides of the aisle who voiced reasoned opposition to what they perceived as contradictory and unjust COVID-19 policies and later faced recrimination.

I strive to be tolerant of individuals who hold opposing views rather than participate in walk-outs, threaten violence, or snub colleagues by calling them “woke” and other derogatory terms. “It just tells us how terrible our culture is becoming, that we can’t have an honest scientific debate about the things we disagree on,” remarked Georges Benjamin, MD, executive director of the American Public Health Association (APHA). Benjamin recently made that statement after public health expert Leana Wen, MD, was forced to cancel her panel discussion at the APHA annual meeting due to credible threats against her life — and she’s not alone.

Doctors, not politicians, need to pave the way for crucial civil discourse and the resolution of controversial issues that impact healthcare and our patients’ ability to receive it — issues ranging from reproductive health to mental health to environmental health. We should reject predetermined political frameworks for interpreting evidence to explain differences in outcomes. It’s time we learned to differentiate politics from science and quash political initiatives attempting to pass as evidenced-based medical principles.

Arthur Lazarus, MD, MBA, is a member of the Physician Leadership Journal editorial board and an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia.

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