Why You Should Talk About Politics at the Dinner Table

Talking about politics in a social setting is often considered either completely taboo, or at the very least an advanced maneuver. Etiquette specialists such as Emily Post have even published guidelines to successfully navigating conversations about politics to help the wary conversationalist. The risk in discussing politics with family and friends is, I think, twofold. First, there is a chance you will say something that offends your conversation partner. Second, and related, you may find that the two of you have divergent opinions, and you then have the challenge of maintaining a relationship despite having differences. Differences in strong opinions have been known to pull people away from each other, and none of us want to lose or distance ourselves from our friends and families

In my opinion, these dangers can be mitigated and ought to be confronted anyway. As my holiday season progresses, I am visiting with my family and my boyfriend’s family; my friends and Rob’s friends. Most of these people have strong views about politics or the role of government in society, and as a student of the law I want to learn about these different perspectives. As a law student I also find myself more likely to find myself in conversations about policy, as people naturally progress from talking about some law school class to what they think about those particular laws

As we grow up, our views are largely informed by our parents and other adult role models. I grew up in Vermont, which is a socially and fiscally progressive state with a very homogeneous population. In this setting I learned to think about welfare as good thing because ‘of course the government ought to take care of people in trouble’. I heard no challenges to this view, and so I never had to think critically about the welfare system, how it is structured and how large it is, whether that structure is good and efficient, or even to what extent I believe in a social safety net. Without any challenge, I held no true views: I could parrot, but not defend.

Rob’s family and many of his friends are staunchly libertarian. They believe in small government, civil liberties, and the power of the free market. I delight in hearing their perspectives on politics and the role of the government because their arguments are passionate and cogent – I can test them with counterarguments, or challenge the premise that a free market will do in reality what it ought to hypothetically. The more I learn, the more I come to see what I understand as a basic tension of policy under many of our social laws and programs: to what extent do we want freedom to win over, and to what extent do we want to enforce certain desirable outcomes, such as alleviating poverty, by restricting the freedoms of others?

The conversations I have about policies and politics with the many people I meet over the holidays educate me and inspire me to be a better lawyer and a better citizen. The risk that someone will be offended can be mitigated greatly by speaking with respect and honesty, and by listening as often as you speak. The value I get out of these conversations is well worth any risk that I will have to do some patching up later if something goes a little awry. In sum, I highly recommend talking politics at the dinner table.

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