Author’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on being an effective pro-life advocate over the holidays.
I’ve been speaking about relational apologetics more often lately, a phrase that I define as “cultivating relationships with people who have different beliefs, for the sake of genuine friendship and for discovering truth together.” One of the most frequent questions I get asked after discussing this topic is how to handle potentially volatile political discussions with family members, such as in the context of a big family dinner at Thanksgiving or Christmas. Even Saturday Night Live has made light of how politically charged Thanksgiving dinners can become:
As my colleague Rachel Crawford noted during a discussion of relational apologetics that we recorded for the Equipped for Life Course Podcast:
I think that a large part of long-term apologetics is going to be coming from what sort of relationship you have with the other person. . . . Having relational apologetics with a family member, especially if they are your mother or your grandmother and they are not a peer, that is going to be especially difficult. . . . that poses an extra challenge.
Family members present several challenges that may make engaging in discourse with them particularly difficult if you want to be persuasive. I’d like to explain why that is and offer several practical tips for optimizing your chances of changing people’s minds in this context.
Here are six things to keep in mind before you arrive at a big family gathering this holiday season:
#1: Understand the Complicated Power Dynamics Within Families
Generally speaking, political discussions among people who disagree go better when both people think of each other as peers. [Tweet that.] So if you’re discussing abortion with your pro-choice cousin, there’s no power imbalance at play. It’s trickier, however, if instead your pro-choice aunt or grandparent wants to debate you.
Sometimes when someone becomes an adult or hits a certain point in life like getting a job, getting married, or even having a baby, their older family members will transition from seeing that person as a kid to seeing them as another adult. Often the dynamic changes to one that is more like a peer relationship, even though the age gap may be fairly big. In that case, there is less likely to be a power imbalance implicit in the relationship, and dialogues about political issues become less complicated. However, some people are set in their way of thinking and will always think of you as a kid, or at least far less mature than themselves, because of the age difference and perhaps because they used to babysit you. If that’s the dynamic, political debates are likely to be fruitless (or worse!) because as hard as it is for someone to have the humility to learn something from a conversation about an important topic, it takes far more humility to admit that you learned something from someone you once spoon-fed.
So when you’re considering the wisdom of getting into a political discussion with a particular family member, consider the power dynamic in that relationship and any history you might have with that person. Does he or she treat you like a kid or a peer? If it’s the former, I’d recommend avoiding a debate. They are far more likely to be persuaded by someone they respect as a peer than someone they subconsciously look down on.
What should you say if that pro-choice grandfather who still sees you as a kid tries to instigate a debate with you anyway? Let’s assume that he does this when you’re one-on-one, not at the dinner table, but you still have the power dynamic issue at play. Rachel Crawford recommends responding like this:
As my grandfather, I feel like you deserve a certain level of respect from me simply because you are an elder in our family. Even though I am no longer a child, I feel like that same respect and honor should never leave our relationship. Given that generational dynamic, I feel like it is difficult for me to disagree with you intellectually in the same way I would with a peer. I feel somewhat limited in what I can say in our conversations because I do not want to come off as undermining your authority.
I would try to minimize the chances that your pro-choice grandfather will initiate a debate with you by acting intentionally. Let’s assume for this example that your grandfather tries to bring up a contentious topic every time he sees you. Remember, we want to encourage people on both sides of any political debate to see each other as real people, not merely defining people by their beliefs on topic X or Y. So when that grandfather arrives, I’d be sure I was one of the first people to greet him with a big smile and hug and say something really positive to him. Maybe you’ve enjoyed his Facebook pictures lately, or he’s been posting inspirational quotes or funny videos that you’ve liked. Try to create a positive moment based on something you both enjoy that does not relate to politics.
Think of your grandfather as being in a mental rut. Think of a groove in the dirt that’s been caused by rolling a wheelbarrow down it over and over. Your grandfather’s wheelbarrow is in that rut. My hope is that by having all this positivity with him before he can start something with you, you will kick the wheelbarrow out of that rut.
If your grandfather continues to push for a debate, you might ask him a more direct question about your concern about power dynamics:
Help me understand, are we having a friendly political debate as peers, or am I a subordinate in this conversation? I can’t very well be expected to properly defend my political view in a conversation with a person who sees me as a subordinate. If you just want to lecture me, I’m happy to listen, but I’d like to clarify first what kind of conversation is happening.
In a worst-case scenario where he just won’t stop instigating political debates with you, I’d recommend avoiding him and just trying to keep the peace. Focus your time with other family members who aren’t trying to start a fight with you, if possible.
#2: Don’t Initiate an Abortion Debate at the Dinner Table
There are several reasons why the big annual dinner table with extended family is the wrong time and place for an abortion debate:
- One-on-one debate is almost always more persuasive than public debate. This is one of the problems with having abortions debates in big Facebook comment threads. I suspect that people are more image-conscious now than they have been in hundreds of years. We’re constantly trying to control how people view us, and that affects the things we say and do. It makes us try to be more likable and less authentic. But that’s a huge problem if you’re trying to have a real dialogue where all parties are open to changing their mind. Remember, as Daniel Cohen pointed out in his great TED talk: “If argument equals war, then learning equals losing.” People rarely have the humility to change their minds about a divisive topic while other people they know are watching.
- Just because two people want to debate abortion at the table doesn’t mean that anybody else wants to listen to it. It is generally not socially acceptable to leave a big family dinner without a really good reason. So everyone is sort of trapped. They might want to discuss other things and would be distracted at best and upset at worst if an abortion debate raged back and forth across the table.
- That problem is amplified if anybody at the table is post-abortive. Nearly one in four women in the United States (23.7%) will have an abortion by age 45, according to a 2017 analysis by Guttmacher Institute researchers Rachel Jones and Jenna Jerman, published in the American Journal of Public Health. I don’t think it’s right to force someone to listen to an abortion debate against their will, especially if listening to it is going to cause them emotional distress. Obviously, I would want that person to be able to find healing in a more healthy context like with a therapist, clergy member, or a support group like “Forgiven and Set Free.” I’ve certainly witnessed cases where a post-abortive person stumbled upon a pro-life outreach and was actually helped by it, but those were all cases where he or she had the option of leaving but chose to stay.
#3: Apologize for Past Bad Behavior If Necessary
We sometimes get emails from people who have just discovered Equal Rights Institute and say things like, “I’m so glad I found you, but I wish I had a long time ago. I’m seeing that there’s a lot that I should do differently when I talk about abortion.” If you can identify with that feeling and you’ve talked to your family members about abortion before, then you need to realize that you’re not starting from neutral just because you may not have seen these people for the last year. Bad impressions can last a long time, especially when they involve deeply emotional topics like this one. Put simply, you are unlikely to change someone’s mind if you’ve offended them in the past and it hasn’t been resolved yet. You may need to find an opportunity, either before the gathering or during it, to pull someone aside and say something like:
Hey, I’ve been reading a lot about the abortion issue and I’ve come to realize that some of the things I used to say about this were obnoxious, unhelpful, or wrong. It wouldn’t surprise me if I offended you, and I’d like to ask you to forgive me for that, and please know that I’m working on talking about issues like this with more grace.
Remember that the pro-choice people in your family probably don’t believe what they do because they’re unconcerned with harming babies; they may not think of fetal humans as persons, but (probably more likely) they’re concerned with other questions, such as how to care for women, such as themselves, their daughters, or their sisters, who may become pregnant in a difficult situation. Their view of abortion is incomplete and harmful, but it’s important to dignify them as a person by respectfully listening to their thoughts. Especially if you’ve been your family’s resident obnoxious right-winger, you will probably need to extend that respect well before you expect to receive it. Still, showing humility and empathy gives you the best chance to heal relational wounds and have more productive conversations in the future.
There also may be baggage from your past behavior with someone not related to politics or abortion that could block you from being able to have a good dialogue about politics. If you’ve had a fight with someone or trust was broken somehow, that is going to need to be resolved before you try to change their mind about abortion, because changing someone’s mind usually necessitates some level of trust.
#4: Remember that Your Social Media Posts Will Affect How Pro-Choice People Perceive You
Even if you’re about to see family members that you only see at Thanksgiving and/or Christmas, that doesn’t mean that your views on abortion haven’t affected them. They very well may see some or all of your social media posts on this subject, and if so, that will affect how they feel about you, for better or for worse.
This is one reason why you should be very picky about what pro-life things you post on social media. Don’t just post things that are preaching to the pro-life choir while forgetting about how it will come across to your pro-choice friends. If you post videos with titles like, “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS Transgenderism And Pro-Abortion Arguments,” that may signal all kinds of things to your pro-choice family members, like that you’re smug, closed-minded, or argumentative.
Those things may not be true about you, maybe you just posted the video because you wanted to educate people with interesting arguments and ideas, but that’s not likely how it would come across to the other side. For the same reason, I think you should avoid sharing articles that refer to people as “pro-abortion” or “pro-abort.” (I’ve written some of my reasons for that here and here.)
Given that your social media posts will either have a positive or negative impact on the pro-choice people watching, here are a few recommendations:
- Don’t only post about abortion on social media. You don’t want to come across like you have Fetus Tunnel Vision. Post occasionally on other topics you care about, ideally including topics where you can find common ground with your pro-choice friends. Post personal things as well. Facebook and Instagram are great tools for showing that you’re a real human being with desires and interests, and it is always easier to discuss controversial topics with someone who humanizes you and doesn’t just see you as a talking head for the pro-life movement.
- When you do want to post about abortion, ask yourself what you want to accomplish. Are you hoping to educate? Is the intended audience pro-life people or pro-choice people or both? Are you trying to encourage activism? Are you hoping to start a debate in the comments?
- Before you post a video or article, watch it or read it the way a pro-choice person would. I’m not saying to never offend anyone. I am saying to avoid needlessly offending someone.
#5: Don’t Be That Person Who Talks About Abortion Every Time They’re Around You
Have you ever been in a social setting where everybody in the room is talking about their personal lives and experiences except for that one guy who keeps going on political rants? It’s not that annoying at first, but as time goes on, he gets pretty irritating and people start avoiding him. You don’t want to be that guy. Remember, DBW: Don’t Be Weird. Be aware of what’s going on around you and whether a political discussion would be way off topic at the moment.
This problem is made worse if that guy always does that. He becomes known as the “obnoxious right-wing” guy who doesn’t want to talk about anything besides politics. And that’s unfortunate because he may have things to say that are worth thinking about, but because this is the only thing he talks about, he’s annoying, so people are far less likely to take his ideas seriously. Human nature, being what it is, means that sometimes we need to focus on quality over quantity when it comes to political discussions. [Tweet that!]
Please don’t interpret this point as me advocating to never talk politics. I’m advocating that people be wise in the way that they talk about politics so that they can make a greater impact.
#6: Extend Good Dialogues Into Future Conversations
If you do get into a decent one-on-one dialogue at the family gathering, I’d recommend treating that conversation as groundwork for future conversations on the topic. Don’t wait until the next family holiday. Don’t just say, “Cool, let’s talk about that more sometime.” If you’re having a productive dialogue that both of you are enjoying and learning from, make a follow-up plan on the calendar! Every conversation on this topic is likely to have an even greater impact on that person than the last one! That’s because in every conversation you’re building rapport, laying groundwork, and dealing with the hurdles this particular person has that are blocking them from becoming pro-life.
For more on how to navigate a string of conversations like that, I’d recommend browsing our blog category on relational apologetics, where you’ll find stories and practical tips for engaging in a series of dialogues effectively.
Click here to read part two in this series, on seven practical tips to make the best out of the situation where a family member is forcing a political debate at the dinner table.
Question: Do you anticipate difficult topics being brought up at your holiday table? We’d love to hear how these six suggestions help you this year!
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The post “6 Things Every Pro-Life Advocate Needs to Know Before the Holidays” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”