The XX Factor

In Defense of Keeping Your Mouth Shut on Thanksgiving (or at Least Full of Food)

Thanksgiving dinner.
Thanksgiving dinner might not be the best time for debate

Photograph by Stockbyte/Thinkstock.

Like it or not, Thanksgiving is a politicized holiday. Anyone moderately aware of history recognizes the ethical difficulty inherent in celebrating the violent colonization of our great land. (In that vein, a little gem from a friend of mine on Facebook: “Dad just said Happy Thanksgiving to an obvious Native American. He lectured us (kindly) on why that’s not nice to do.”) There’s also the prickly issue of participating in mass gluttony in a time when obesity is on the rise and hunger is still a major problem, not to mention the fact that PETA is encouraging kids to occupy the kitchen in protest of eating the creature that they so recently modeled with their hands in construction paper. Suffice it to say, enjoying the stuffing Norman Rockwell-style these days requires that we digest a fairly large helping of cognitive dissonance as well.

But some people aren’t satisfied with that. Over the past few days, I have received at least six calls to act as the spokesperson for various social justice issues during my feast. GLAAD has insisted that I make “Aunt Betty” feel awkward about gayness, while Planned Parenthood suggests that I speechify about her reproductive health. I’ve also been advised to slyly deconstruct structural inequality while passing the mashed potatoes, to defend Occupy Wall Street over dessert, and finally, to debunk the misinformation campaigns of both Fox News and the entire compendium of conservative chain emails while sipping coffee. Since there’s not enough space on my palms to write down all the talking points, I’ll probably need to bring my Yuppie Elitist East Coast Liberal Edition iPad to the table to keep it all straight.

That, or I could just keep my mouth shut.

While we undoubtably all have family members who live for nothing more than to stomp on political land mines, I’m deeply uncomfortable with the idea that the Thanksgiving table necessarily must be a forum for working out all of these issues. Call me sentimental, but I like to imagine that for most families—even contentious ones—the holidays are a time to reconnect with loved ones (like me) who fled “fly-over country” for the sinful Big City, not for rehashing tired debates that will almost certainly remain unresolved. When many of us get to see our families so rarely, is it really worth it to arm ourselves for some kind of apocalyptic ideological end-game before we even say hello?

I say no, but perhaps my method of mixing astute comments about New York weather with copious amounts of wine isn’t engaged enough for some. In that case, I’d suggest employing the tried and true Southern rhetorical art form of mannered passive aggression. Is Uncle Joe still questioning President Obama’s birth origins? Just answer with a “My, my, the world is a crazy place these days,” followed by an inquiry as to the health of his girlfriend, the one he’s been living with but hasn’t married yet. And what about Grandma Mary’s concern that those illegal immigrants are stealing our jobs? A gentle “Bless their hearts” combined with a compliment of her new landscaping design (“Now how much did you pay those men for all that sod work? Surely minimum wage …”) ought to do the trick. If you need more pointers, revisit Steel Magnolias.

This is not to say that we should sit silently in the face of aggressively offensive comments; there is obviously a line over which anger and intervention are justified. However, I actually suspect that it’s rare that that line is crossed. In most cases, I think it’s best—and perfectly ethical—to leave the little barbs alone. Being the bigger person will likely make the meal more pleasant (and quicker) for everyone.

Oh, and don’t forget, you can always give donations in honor of Uncle Joe and Grandma Mary to the ACLU for Christmas. Just be sure to send them a super cheerful card annoucing the great news.