For Cheyenne Perry, a senior journalism and psychology double major at the University of Massachusetts, the holidays don’t just bring warm food and festive decorations. Coming from a family divided over their views on Donald Trump and party politics, she says that the situation is a lot more complicated than simply having a “mature” discussion at the dinner table.
“It’s upsetting when I have family who express views rooted in ignorance and intolerance,” Perry said. “I have a hard time separating people from their views, so political debates force me to feel distant from the people that I love.”
While some experts advocate leaning in to these tough conversations, many UMass families are grappling with the question of how best to approach political debates in an era where partisan divides are only growing stronger.
Many students try to avoid talking politics with family altogether – some, like Perry, in an attempt to keep the peace, and others, simply because it’s the easier route. Tejaswini Pallikonda, a junior political science major, says that for her, political discussions at home simply aren’t worth it.
“As Asian Americans, there’s this notion of comparing our suffering to that of other minorities,” Pallikonda said. “I’ve heard family friends talk about how people of other groups need to work as hard as Asians, and when you’re surrounded by stubborn people with these kinds of uninformed opinions, it’s not worth talking about politics.”
Freshman legal studies and political science double major Sophie Shapiro contends that families should talk politics at home, as it allows young adults the opportunity to learn and grow in their discussions. However, she concedes, it’s just as important to “gauge your audience and the time and place of the debate,” as it is to have conversations with people you don’t agree with.
“My immediate family tends to lean the same way politically, so while there can be nuances in our opinions, we generally understand where others are coming from – political conversations are welcome there,” Shapiro said. “However, my extended family has people all over the political spectrum, so those conversations can be potentially dangerous and cause a lot of unwanted stress– we try to avoid those discussions at large gatherings in the interest of keeping the peace.”
In the face of these strong divides, other UMass families have laid down ground rules for discussions that involve politics. Lorraine Walsh Troisi, a parent of a UMass student from Shrewsbury, Mass., says that in her house, only family members who vote are allowed to voice their beliefs.
“If you’re over 18 and you didn’t vote, then you aren’t debating, you’re just arguing,” she said. “Listening to both sides of a conversation is a powerful way to learn and to form your own opinions, but opinions are nothing without action.”
She also asserts that an important part of debating is not taking opinions personally, and backing your own views with real, learned experience. “Opinions are what a person believes based on what they’ve learned,” she said.
However, for Phillip Bishop, a junior political science and journalism double major, politics is always personal. He asserts that to truly have a well-rounded conversation, there needs to be a sense of empathy, and an emphasis on how legislation actually affects individual lives, rather than just a well-informed viewpoint.
“The biggest issue I see with these discussions is trying to explain how politics are personal to someone else,” Bishop said. “For example, when I came out as bisexual to my parents, I could explain to them how the individuals that they were voting for were actively working in opposition to my livelihood.”
Bishop went on to explain that while facts and statistics may be relevant to an issue, they are much less important than the experiences of real people. “To make politics anything other than personal, to me, is disingenuous.”
Rachel Swansburg can be reached at [email protected]