“Never discuss politics or religion at the dinner table,” so the saying goes. I spent a few minutes trying to track down the origin of this idiom without success. I did find several discussion boards where posters intimate that their mothers told them that. I’m left to assume this is a saying as old as these two institutions.
In case you haven’t noticed, people regularly ignore this idiom in the context of politics in two situations (I shall willfully ignore the “religion” part in this essay):
- In a meatspace social situation, when they assume their viewpoints match those of their present company; or
- on social media.
There is, however, a conundrum: Breaking this idiom consistently underscores the efficacy of it. Emotions, assumptions, and overconfidence lead to name calling, ridicule, career-ending bloviating, and even violence.
Why break the idiom at all, then?
I am a strong advocate for intelligent discussion and debate, especially face-to-face. I don’t like this idiom, and I don’t like when people wield it to cut conversations short. On the surface, it seems polite. But the underlying presumption is that political discussions will necessarily devolve into some kind of “fight” because of “disagreements.”
Merrily acquiescing to this self-censorship to avoid face-to-face conflict has caused our ability to converse about politics with those we love and trust, but with whom we may disagree, to atrophy. It is with this weakened faculty for personal communication that we sit behind our keyboards, or tap on our screens, and fuel social media.
With infantile ego-centrism, we trot out cliche after cliche, meming our way around a track of destructive divisiveness toward the finish line of a race to the gutter.
It’s time for us to stop this nonsense and strive for a measure of self-awareness. Take responsibility for the angst and division that you may cause with juvenile put-downs and generalizations; open your mind to the possibility that you might be wrong, and that others have formulated their opinions and beliefs benevolently. You will learn and grow from this.
We must practice taking individual responsibility for civilized participation in social rhetoric about important issues; and, concede this realm to neither mass media nor politicians.
I propose that we amend the idiom as follows, then stop selectively ignoring it:
“Never discuss politics or religion if you’re going to be an asshole.”
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