7 Tips for Handling a Forced Political Debate at the Holiday Dinner Table

Author’s note: This is part two of a two-part series on being an effective pro-life advocate at family holiday gatherings. Part one is here: 6 Things Every Pro-Life Advocate Needs to Know Before the Holidays.

7 Tips for Handling a Forced Political Debate at the Holiday Dinner Table

In my first article on this subject, I explained that political discussions with extended family are some of the most complicated dialogue situations to navigate due largely to the power dynamics. I also discussed several reasons why the holiday dinner table is not an ideal time or place for persuading people to change their mind about abortion.

But what if your pro-choice aunt does bring up abortion or another political topic at the dinner table and tries to pull you into a debate with her? Here are seven tips for making the best of that situation:

6 Things Every Pro-Life Advocate Needs to Know Before the Holidays

Author’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on being an effective pro-life advocate over the holidays.

6 Things Every Pro-Life Advocate Needs to Know Before 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:

Debate vs. Dialogue: How Do They Differ?

John Ferrer debate

John Ferrer debates David Smalley on the problem of evil for The Bible & Beer Consortium.
Photo by Hillary Morgan Ferrer. Used with permission.

Debate is fun for me, but I’m odd like that. I’m an academic and ethics teacher, so I’ve debated abortion formally and informally, in academic settings and elsewhere. The subject arises most every time I’m in a panel discussion, too. In that time, I’ve come to learn that debating is radically different from casual conversation. It’s miles apart from almost every kind of interaction we can have on campus, around the lunch table, walking to class, or hanging out over coffee.

Even with all that debate experience, I’m still a novice when it comes to casual conversations about abortion. I’m a little weird like that. Thanks to Josh, Tim, and the rest of the ERI team, I’m learning how to not be weird. One advantage of my experience, however, is that I can help explain the pitfalls of debating abortion, especially when the other person just wants a dialogue. I know those pitfalls by experience; I’ve tripped across almost all of them. I’m painfully aware that academic debate is entirely different from the street-level, day-to-day conversations regular people have about an issue.

Debate can be incredibly valuable in formal settings, in classes, or on certain websites that facilitate that sort of structured exchange. Most of the time, however, people aren’t looking for a debate, and so we can overpower and ruin a conversation if we try to force it into that mold. I’d like to offer some counsel on how to distinguish debate from dialogue so you can keep your conversations healthy and persuasive.

Ben Shapiro’s Response to Abortion in the Case of Rape

A Case Study in the Differences between a Debate and a Dialogue

Editor’s Note – 5/31/17: The Ben Shapiro video Tim comments on was uploaded to the Shapiro Facebook page on April 10th. Four weeks later we published this piece from Tim, encouraging pro-life advocates to avoid imitating some of the things Shapiro does in their one-on-one dialogues regarding rape. Two weeks after that, we captured the audio from the video so that we could use the relevant clips in the podcast version of this article. However, by the time we captured the audio, the video had been edited by an administrator of the Ben Shapiro Facebook page. As a result of that edit, one of the sentences that appears in the post below is no longer in the video.

So here’s what we’ve done. We’ve made the font of Tim’s paragraph setting up the now-deleted sentence as well as the quotation itself dark red. It was in the original video, but it’s not there now. If it was edited because Shapiro and/or his people were concerned about the tone, we would agree with that concern. Their edit doesn’t substantially affect this piece though, because the first quotation from that section is still there, and is still sufficient to warrant the critique Tim gave.

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Ben Shapiro speaking in Pasadena.

Picture by Gage Skidmore and use is allowed through a Creative Commons license.

A few weeks ago, Ben Shapiro released a video of himself after a campus speech in which he responded to a question about abortion in the case of rape. It was undeniably effective and many pro-life people shared it.

I can’t imagine any reasonable person suggesting that the pro-choice student got the better of him in their exchange. But I am concerned that pro-life students may take the wrong message from the video.

Shapiro is an incredibly skilled debater, and a Q&A after a speech is clearly a setting for debate, not dialogue. A speaker’s primary responsibility in that setting is to convince the audience, not the person with whom he is arguing. My purpose in this article is not to criticize Shapiro for debating the way he does, it is to explain why it would be a huge mistake to emulate Shapiro’s debate strategy in a one-on-one conversation (and, to be fair, I have no idea how Shapiro handles a one-on-one conversation without an audience).

Here are the three ways pro-life students should dialogue differently than Shapiro debates: