Summers feel long in the Southwest of France. From about 2005 to 2015, my aunt Véronique lived in an old creaky house next to the cemetery in a calm, typical French village. At night, we would set the table in the garden and eat melons and French delicacies. On some occasions, the grown-ups would open a bottle of wine. Dinner would sometimes go until 1 a.m.
When dinner would take too long — usually because the guests had been talking for hours without showing signs of fatigue — I would leave the table and play in the old garden as the sun slowly descended behind the hedges.
Closing my eyes, I can still hear the bats squeak, the cobblestones sing below my feet and the tired voice of my aunt in the dark: “No, you can’t say that!”
My family loves arguing. Call it a common character trait or a psychological deviance, the fact remains that every single one of us likes to quarrel on any topic we find fit. Honestly, we might even feel some pride in it.
Conflict can come from any discussion with us: town rumors, personal anecdotes and, of course, politics. My family has always enjoyed a good ole’ clash of ideologies, probably due to our historical background — Grandpa was a Communist and has tried (and failed) to pass that on to his children — and also due to the way our family expanded, left town and settled in different places with different jobs and different concerns.
Conversations about government, laws, and what’s right and wrong have long been part of my family-dinner experience; a strange party is one spent without a political interlude between two beers. This isn’t to say that every night looks like a democratic debate, but being stuck between my aunt, who is a left-wing school teacher, and my brother, who would have gladly enlisted in a nationalistic military, teaches you to have curiosity about others’ opinions.
A whole new world
My stay in Columbia was my first time in America. I came to study journalism at MU for a semester. I was intrigued by what I was going to see and hear. I mean, a country built on colonization, a country led by one of its most controversial and polarizing presidents of all time, had to be a place of turmoil and political fervor. It was going to be insane.
But in truth, it was far from insane. It was mundane, even. Polite and mundane. It took me some time to realize that Americans are trained in chit-chat but avoid certain topics. Most of them love to argue about the best food, the best place to live or the best bars. But politics, and social issues in general, are often left out of discourse. From people willingly ignoring poverty in their own towns to political science teachers doing anything to avoid heated debates during class, it seemed to me that Americans had a problem with discussion.
After trying to get to the bottom of this in conversation with my friends, I was left with the feeling that Americans live by an unspoken agreement, one which isn’t hidden behind facts or statistics, but behind a behavior code, implied in every word, sentence or topic. In a country where everything has gone to hell, one ought not to talk about the rising heat.
“I think what you’re witnessing is this form you have in the Midwest,” says Chris Conner, visiting assistant professor of sociology at MU. “It depends on where you’re located. I spent this summer on the East Coast, and people were definitely engaging in those conversations at pubs and bars, as what you’d see in Europe.” Because of this tendency, or Midwest politeness, people don’t want to say anything that might be offensive or taken out of context, Conner says. So maybe what I was experiencing wasn’t a wholly American phenomenon. I might have just ended up in the least confrontational part of the country.
A no-confrontation zone
That being said, studies show that Americans in all regions are skeptical of political small talk. Take studies about the secular Thanksgiving as an example. In 2018, UCLA behavioral economist Keith Chen and Washington State University Ph.D. student Ryne Rohla used smartphone data to measure travel times during the holidays. They found that people were less likely to cross into conservative and liberal states. In other words, Americans are willing to avoid loved ones to avoid conflict.
However, politics are the bed bugs of social interaction: They will always find their way into your home. Research by Greater Good Magazine shows that there seems to be a correlation between political polarization and aversion to conflict. When it comes to politics, fear of confrontation is leading people to tune it out rather than talk it out. We can say that this deep fracture between American citizens creates, or at least feeds, the difficulty of political conversation.
A nation divided
Through geographical and psychological processes, we can find a lot of reasons why people don’t talk with one other. There’s a growing polarization of voters around the country, a concerning separation between rural and urban areas (implying that we only talk with people from the same background) and a clash between generations. Sherry Turkle, a bestselling author who writes about technology, explains social media can be another roadblock to productive conversations. Young people are heavily influenced by social media, she writes, and the confirmation bias that comes with it. They’ve never had the incentive to have difficult face-to-face interactions.
In other words, people seek out other people who are similar to them, which leaves little room for ideological debate. It seems we’re in a conversational dead end. “Instead of engaging someone in a conversation about ‘Why do you think that way?’ what is happening is both parties decide to tune out,” Conner says,“because it is psychologically uncomfortable to have those conversations.”
But there’s another problem. “I think people don’t want to talk about race issues, for example, or even the overcrowding in jails. We’d have to talk about the underlying racial problems, and we’d have to talk about how the system is structured,” Conner says. “People realize that, if they want to confront issues, they’d have to confront the structure of society and how it’s been shaped to favor a particular kind of individual.” Discussing and addressing political issues would mean dismantling an entire system as well the way we think and the way we’ve been shaped by society.
I believe a lot of people must feel that way. Politics are too complicated, and they touch too many issues, and politicians aren’t representing people effectively, so how can things ever change?
A lose-lose game
The first step of understanding politics is, in my opinion, realizing how much of a pragmatic, lesser-evil game it is. It’s impossible to please everyone; even the most genuinely positive action can bring anger. It’s no wonder people feel disconnected from the process and their leaders. But we can’t avoid politics forever.
Why do we have to be pessimistic about our ability to change what’s happening around us? Talking about conflict means confronting it. Because it’s a big, cold and incomprehensible machine? Fair enough. But the system is human-made, and it only takes humans to tear it down.
If the problems we’re facing are connected to the very foundation of the nation, can we ever overcome them? Nathan Katz, a doctoral candidate in the MU sociology department, is skeptical. “I don’t know, and I don’t know if we’re better off solving them,” Katz says. “Using the climate change example, are we better off having a state of ideological unity and discussion that treats climate change as if it’s not a thing? Unity to move forward is a good thing, but if we’re not going to be able to move forward in a way that’s based on scientific data to make decisions or, simply move in the right direction, are we better off at a standstill than moving in a negative direction?”
If that’s the case, then why even bother talking if sitting at the same table runs the risk of us going in the wrong direction together? Thinking this way, the safest move would be to not make a move at all. Maybe that’s the case. But we have to see politics as something in perpetual motion. Even if we avoid getting involved in order to preserve the status quo, others will make us move — potentially in the wrong way. Making a move is necessary, and I believe that the good direction is always a choice. Politics are driven by people; we need to have faith in them — in us.
Some people never learn from others’ insights. They learn by themselves; they make their own ways, meet people and reflect on their own regardless of anyone trying to push ideas down their throat. This doesn’t mean we should ignore them. Talking and listening will always be the cornerstones of political maturity.
There’s no need to be a prophet to those who are against you; being a reasonable human usually does the trick. I had a Catholic religion teacher in high school who used to tell me: “Look at the Bible. Jesus spent most of his time eating at a table, surrounded by his friends.” He spent much of his time sharing meals and having tough conversations with people he had little in common with. A few centuries later, the same guy now has millions of followers around the globe. Behold, the power of a regular dude.
A lesson learned
When I was 8 years old, I moved to a small apartment in East Brussels with my brother and mother. My mother had cut the last connections she had with France. My brother, a teenager at the time, was devastated that we moved and that he had to leave all his friends behind. Family dinners at the time were like having a picnic surrounded by landmines. Each word had to be carefully weighed because it would almost certainly start a fight between those two. I vividly remember my mother sobbing in the kitchen’s door frame after another confrontation; her puffy face was highlighted by the white neon lights above her before she realized she was crying in front of me and immediately hid in the kitchen.
My family loves arguing. Maybe it’s a character trait, but it also could be a natural tendency to express out loud the fact that none of us get along.
Coming to Missouri, I took pride in my ability to express opinions and found ridiculous, ironically, the discomfort of others to do the same; to do something I learned from decades of family feuds. Now, I’m not sure I can brag about that argumentative nature anymore (though I could certainly talk to an expensive therapist about it). Even though I still firmly believe that expressing your opinions matters now more than ever, I see the intricacies that lead people to avoid certain topics.
Why don’t Americans talk about politics? Maybe because they worry about making enemies of their family and friends. Maybe it’s because they know their country is a ticking time bomb, and scratching the match between dinner and dessert won’t help. Maybe they just want to enjoy some calm before the storm. Is that wrong? No, probably not.