It's that time of year again: when extended family comes together to laugh, love, and vehemently disagree on political issues. But what to do if you're progessive, outnumbered and outgunned?
That profoundly awkward moment when a relative ‘fires up’ about a favourite conservative topic, such as public broadcasting and/or perceived media bias, the perceived damage that unions do to the economy, a perceived problem or another about a particular ethnicity, nationality or religion, or how good Andrew Bolt is.
How do you respond? How can you respond?
This is an acute problem for some people. You may care about the relative in question so you do not want to embarrass them or take away the only dignity they think they have left. You probably also do not want to cause a ‘scene’ by pointing out the inevitable contradictions that exist just below the surface. After all, it is meant to be the festive season.
If this was a class in critical thinking you would push the relative to the point that the contradictions in what they were saying were obvious. To do this without coming across as a school teacher is very difficult.
There are a number of techniques to survive your conservative relatives:
1.) Don’t go. Don’t stay. Don’t engage. Avoid. You won’t be much of an organic intellectual by avoiding conversations, but for your own sanity, simply do not engage.
2.) Do not fire up, ever. Do not bite, ever. Look out for cynical relatives who treat small talk like a sport and trolling earnest relatives (i.e. you) a win.
3.) Shift the focus from empty platitudes (what conservatives take to be ‘common sense’) to a ‘safe’ topic of conversation. This is the discursive equivalent of running away. Sport is a good topic. Some hobby or another is also good.
4.) Shift the register from empty platitudes to an active interrogation of the relative’s interests. This is similar to point two, but instead of basically meaningless conversation you work to make the relative as interesting as possible. Yes, that is right. The art of small talk is not to appear interesting yourself, but to make the other person seem as interesting as possible.
5.) Pursue interest in the other person like a free speech advocate suing for defamation. Work to isolate any changes in the other person. For example, health-related issues, have there been lifestyle changes? Sprouting empty platitudes they inherit from the talking points of their media heroes makes conservatives exceptionally boring. Making a conservative appear interesting should be considered a great work of charity.
If you haven’t guessed, it is not really about you surviving your conservative relatives, but your conservative relatives surviving you. What if you are not feeling so charitable?
1.) Flip the discussion. Find the pressure points. Help your conservative relative laugh at their own stupidity.
2.) Question the basis of a given statement. Demand evidence. Demand details. You can normally funnel a series of topics down to a few core issues. Imagine a kind of engineering flow diagram but for small talk. Watch this Mark Textor interview, he is fantastic at flipping the tables on the journalist and therefore diverting the interview from anything related to the original series of questions.
3.) The first pressure point involves pointing out hasty generalisations. A hasty generalisation is when a small sample of something is taken to represent the broader set. Your basic task is to point out the hidden assumptions in what is being said. For example: “Refugees are just [something].” Your reply: “Have you encountered many refugees?” The superficialities of conservatives’ empty platitudes are built on such hidden assumptions. If you question what is taken to be ‘common sense’, then your conservative relative will be left in a floundering mess. This used to be called ‘consciousness raising’ because most people latched onto things that allowed them to not think too deeply about their own misguided beliefs.
4.) The second pressure point is the media. You will inevitably get to this point. And I mean always. Your relative has never met a refugee, unless they include their friend who came across on a boat in the 1960s or 1970s. Your conservative relative inevitably reads Andrew Bolt, watches anything but the ABC, such as Sky News or Fox, and is a massive fan of Larry Pickering. You normally get to this point when you ask for evidence:
Q: How do you know this about [refugees/unions/Julia Gillard/the ABC]?
A: I read/watched it on Bolt’s blog/Sky News/etc.
You want to guide your relative to mentioning Andrew Bolt’s blog. This can happen a number of ways, via Bolt’s legal issues or the conservative misunderstood belief in the ABC’s alleged bias. This is because one of the greatest services to humanity is the twitter account @boltcomments.
It contains distilled top-shelf stupidity. Point out to the conservative relative that when they invoke any conservative commentator they might as well be ‘boltcomments’. In twitter, search ‘All’ for “boltcomments [topic]” where [topic] is whatever the conservative relative is talking about (refugees, ABC, unions, Labor, etc.). Read them out. Laugh along with your conservative relative!
Glen Fuller is an academic, cultural critic and an expert in irony.