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Ask Auntie Pinko

August 4, 2005
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie Pinko,

I'm having a hard time coming out as a liberal to my parents, who are hardcore Bush-supporting Republicans. I've already told them I'm a "centrist" to which my father bitterly said, "What, so you don't have any opinions? Can't make up your mind?" and I fear becoming the opposite party in an all "red" household will make waves. How do I approach them in a way that won't cause too much familial disturbance?

Anywhere, USA

Dear Natalie,

Waves happen in every family, and healthy families manage to deal with them. Don't go out of your way to provoke arguments, and don't let your family members provoke you into an argument, but don't be shy about the fact that your opinions may differ from theirs. "I respect your right to have that opinion, Dad, but my opinion differs," is usually enough. If you refrain from pouring scorn on your parents' opinions, you need have no hesitation in politely asking the same courtesy from them.

It is always difficult for parents to think of their children as adults, but being able to differ politely and respectfully is a very adult quality. Give them a chance to see that holding different opinions on the Supreme Court, or CAFTA, or the next Congressional election doesn't change your respect or love for them. Don't be drawn into arguments, but don't be afraid to explain your beliefs or opinions, and don't expect to "convert" them anymore than they are likely to "convert" you.

It might also help to let them know how you feel about having differing opinions, and to express to them your worries that it might make "waves." If they understand how important it is to you that you feel free to hold differing opinions from them, they may be more sensitive to your efforts to maintain your own integrity. In today's climate of polarization, it's all too easy for one person's wish for thoughtful discussion to be someone else's fightin' words. Some people just like to argue - and politics is a boon to people who can't express themselves very effectively in any other way.

Political argument has a distressing way of blinding people to each other's humanity and personhood. We're willing to assert judgments about someone's whole character based solely on their political opinions. What does it matter if someone is a loyal friend, a loving and conscientious parent, a thoughtful and considerate co-worker, if they hold the "wrong" political views? All of their good qualities become 'tainted' by the supposed evil of their political beliefs, their good qualities become folly or hypocrisy and their ordinary human flaws are inflated into diabolical malice.

It is not true that "only stupid people" hold this or that political opinion. Smart people often hold stupid opinions, just as stupid people get credit for more intelligence than they may really have, just because they believe something we regard as "smart." Your parents' political opinions are shaped by many factors, and their reasons for believing as they do are as "good" to them as your reasons for your beliefs are to you.

A lot depends on family culture, and different families have very different cultures. Some families relate in a very scrappy, one-upmanship fashion, arguing and tossing around insults as a matter of course, even though they'd close ranks against an outsider. In such a family, you have to either grow a thick skin and learn to give as good as you get without letting it get too personal, or refrain from handing out ammunition that your relatives can use against you. In other families, disagreements can be tantamount to disloyalty or personal injury, and if you can't say something nice, you'd better not say anything at all. You'll have to consider the overall culture of your family in deciding how you'll 'come out' to your parents.

And above all, if the stress level escalates to where you're seriously unhappy, consider talking to a counselor. Your opinions about political and social issues are an important part of your identity, you shouldn't feel as though you have to suppress them, or try to be someone you're not. Sometimes an outside professional can help you find a balance between your own need to maintain the integrity of your identity, and still be a conscientious and caring family member. Best of luck to you, Natalie, and thanks for asking Auntie Pinko!

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