Wednesday, November 30, 2016

I think it was Emily Post...

...who famously said, "Never discuss religion or politics in polite company."

Or was it some guy named Haliburton? No matter; when I was a kid I heard that a lot. But I never payed any attention to it, obviously -- until now.

I don't remember if I ever actually heard my parents say that, but I distinctly remember them never discussing religion with anyone, particularly anyone who wasn't Catholic. And why would they? Didn't the religious wars of the Middle Ages settle once and for all that no one was going to change anyone else's mind on the subject? For example, when I was very young I was best friends with the kid next door whose family was -- gulp -- Presbyterian. Now, can you imagine my parents knocking on their door and trying to convince them of papal infallibility? It would have been unheard of! (Another common saying when I was young was, "You go to your church and I'll go to mine.")

So by the time I came along in the latter half of the Baby Boom Americans of different religions had pretty much decided to live among each other without discussing the subject. As I said, it would have been considered bad manners (and futile) to try and change anyone's mind on something we just plain believed in because we just plain believed it. So while we went to Mass on Sundays our neighbors went to their churches, and that really exotic group, Jews, went to something called Synagogue. But we all managed to live together relatively peacefully. And why wouldn't we? For the other six days of the week we went about our secular lives without any need to talk or even think about religion.

But politics was a different story. Until now.

You're probably wondering why I put a picture of fruit at the top of this post. And the reason is that I've been thinking and saying a lot lately that if someone were to put some fruit on a table in the middle of a room and two or more people were asked to paint a picture of it you would get as many different paintings as you have painters, depending on everyone's level of skill and, more importantly, their view of reality. Everyone, of course, would paint the different pieces of fruit in different order depending on where they saw them from where they sat in the room. Also, while some might choose to depict the fruit as realistically as possible others might express themselves more abstractly. But you get the idea: everyone would have a different view of the fruit and everyone would paint it differently.

And the truth is that politics is no different from that fruit -- or religion. We all bring our own assumptions, prejudices and beliefs to the subject. (Either you believe, for example, that the government has a role to play in the economy or you don't -- there's really no point in us arguing over that. It's axiomatic.) And nowadays, you can not only hold your own beliefs and opinions but you get to have your own facts and reality. In this age of the Internet, you can read only those things that you already agree with and that reinforce your views. (You know what I'm talking about.)

But when you go and try to talk to somebody about politics, well, you might as well be trying to talk to my old neighbors about that papal infallibility thing -- it's really a waste of time. If you're like me you've just given up (honest!) on even engaging others on the subject when you know if their politics are different from yours. For example, I have an unspoken understanding with my sister and a woman I work with that we just won't even discuss politics at all (although it does limit our conversations quite a bit). But it's just easier that way: I'm not going to change their minds and they're not going to change mine. Heck, sometimes we can't even agree on the facts! Take, for example, that mass shooting in Florida a while back. While liberals like me would say it was just some nutcase with a gun who went in and shot up a gay nightclub, conservatives would argue that it was a terrorist attack. How can we discuss something when we can't even agree on what happened?

So people today try to have family gatherings like Thanksgiving with people who agree with them politically. It's just easier, isn't it? Protestants, Catholics and Jews (and Muslims) can break bread together as long as they don't disagree on politics. It's funny (or not funny); I've heard that parents care more about the politics of their kids' spouses than anything else. And it's true in at least my case: as someone who was raised as a Catholic I couldn't care less that my son is marrying a Jew. The important thing is that she and her parents are not Republicans -- that would really make things uncomfortable!

There's only one problem with not discussing politics in the way we don't debate religion though. As the saying goes, we can each go to our own house of worship on Sunday (or not) and still get together just fine for the other six days of the week. But how on earth do we live together when politics determines almost everything that happens -- taxes, war, even birth control -- in the real world? That's the hard part.

2 comments:

Ed Crotty said...

good advice. BTW either your facebook was hacked or you are being impersonated. I sent a screenshot to your comcast email. If that's no longer valid - shoot me an email and I can send it where you need.

Hollis Heavenrich-Jones said...

Mike, a thoughtful and relevant piece. We were determined at our Thanksgiving to not discuss politics - although it certainly slipped into a few of the toasts, and my mother couldn't resist poking at my brother about Trump's chief strategist. Mostly we kept it calm and peaceful - until the following evening at our house for pizza when the majority of Republicans weren't present. Then the real political fireworks began. :)