This Thanksgiving, Don’t Mistake Getting Along For Giving In

Avoiding confrontation doesn't mean compromising your political beliefs

Posted Nov 22, 2017

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
Source: Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

The U.S. is a nation divided. Republicans and Democrats disagree more now than at any point in recent history. Gun control, climate change, health care, tax policy, sexual harassment, racial discrimination, Russian meddling: these are the issues that divide red America from blue America and may also divide you from your family at Thanksgiving dinner.

A common piece of advice extolled around these times is to set politics aside and focus instead on lighter matters: movies, sports, hobbies, vacations. If you have to spend a prescribed amount of time with people who hold very different political views, it’s best not to spend that time in anger. This advice is sound, but sometimes it goes too far. Sometimes we are encouraged not just to get along for the day but to use that time to affirm each other’s beliefs and find middle ground between them. No one is always right or always right, we are told. The truth is a compromise, and to reach that compromise, we have to open our minds to those with a different perspective.

This advice, though well meaning, is misguided. Sometimes people really are wrong. The climate really is changing, regardless of what Uncle Bob thinks. Guns really do kill people. The Affordable Care Act really has expanded health coverage. Women and minorities really do face harassment and discrimination. And Russia really did meddle in the U.S. election.

Of course, convincing Uncle Bob of those facts will not happen in one dinner and may never happen at all, so I fully endorse the advice of not talking about politics for congeniality’s sake. But it’s important to remember that the social reasons for avoiding a political confrontation are not an intellectual justification for bending one’s beliefs in the pursuit of compromise. What determines whether a belief is worth holding is evidence, not etiquette.

The slippery slope between “don’t confront others on their beliefs” and “accept others’ beliefs as you would accept as your own” is slippery only because we are apt to conflate facts with opinions. It is a fact that the earth’s temperature is rising, not an opinion. You can decide whether to be concerned about rising temperatures, but you don’t get to decide whether they are rising. Nor do you get to decide whether the consequences of rising temperatures—coastal flooding, extreme weather, acidic oceans, mass extinctions—are actually happening. Those are empirical questions, settled by empirical inquiry. They are not matters of opinion.

In addition to conflating facts with opinions, we are also apt to conflate argument with disagreement. An argument is a set of reasons for accepting one’s position as true. A disagreement is merely holding different positions. Arguments imply disagreement—by arguing for one position, you argue against another—but they do not stop at disagreement. Arguments recruit evidence and logic to persuade others of the correctness of one’s position.

The reason we conflate argument and disagreement is bound up with the reason we conflate fact and opinion: we have trouble grasping the more basic notions of knowledge and knowing. Psychologists who study how people think about knowledge (naïve epistemology) have revealed three levels of understanding: absolutism, relativism, and evaluativism. Absolutism is the view that you either know something or you don’t; you are either apprised of the truth or you are ignorant of it. Relativism is the view that knowledge is free for the choosing. You get to decide what you believe, and your uncle gets to decide what he believes, and there is no way to adjudicate the difference. Evaluativism is the view that knowledge may be variable, but it is still evaluable. You and your uncle may hold different beliefs, but one of you likely holds beliefs that are better supported by evidence and logic and thus better aligned with reality.

From a philosophical point of view, evaluativism is the correct stance on knowledge. Knowledge comes in degrees, not absolutes, and it is comprised of objectively evaluable claims, not subjectively chosen opinions. From a psychological point of view, however, evaluativism is an elusive stance. Most people transition from absolutism to relativism during adolescence, but they then remain relativists their entire life. Even college-educated adults tend to be relativists, as most college-educated adults never receive explicit instruction on the nature of knowledge.

This difference between relativism and evaluativism is useful to keep in mind as you contemplate how to interact with family on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Be wary of the advice that you should affirm and embrace your kin’s political views, as that advice assumes the wrong stance on knowledge (relativism). All views can be evaluated and should be evaluated. Views that survive the scrutiny of evidence and logic are the only views worth holding. Thanksgiving dinner is probably not the place to engage in such scrutiny, but it’s also not the place to pretend that Uncle Bob’s unscrutinized beliefs are on par with the scrutinized beliefs of scientists, economists, and doctors. Don’t let the pundits make you feel guilty about breaking bread with your family while refusing to break your commitment to evidence and logic.