The Korea Herald


[Jean Guerrero] How to converse with your MAGA dad

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 5, 2024 - 05:30

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Lately, I avoid conversations with my father because of his passion for lecturing me about politics from a hard-right perspective. It began during COVID lockdowns. Not long ago, he told me he sees Tucker Carlson as a hero. Exasperated, I told him he was idolizing a guy who had mocked his daughter's reporting on national TV.

He shook his head as if I were lying or whining, then soliloquized about Carlson's defense of traditional masculinity. "Tucker has balls down to the floor," he said.

It's not unusual to become estranged from family members who've embraced ideas we view as dead wrong and dangerous. We've grown accustomed to our divides, which many of us see as unbridgeable. But as we enter 2024, I wonder: If we can't have tough political conversations with some of the people we love most, how are we going to overcome our differences as a nation?

This election year could determine whether our democracy lives or dies. Personally, I don't want to live the rest of my days unable to connect with my dad.

We can't impose one-sided change on anyone. But if we seek to connect across differences, we can sometimes spark a process of mutual transformation. It's a risky art, particularly for women who've been cultured to make space for the bellicose men in our lives. What if we're dealing with a relative who acts as if he knows everything? Is it worth engaging such a person?

For many of us, it isn't. I spent the last three years learning how to set boundaries. It has been great for my mental health and sense of well-being. But now that I know how to protect myself, I think I might be ready to try to salvage my bond with my father.

Experts believe it can be worthwhile to engage even our most strongly opinionated family members. Braver Angels, a citizens' organization that works to bridge red and blue America, has a free online course for talking with relatives about politics based on their personality types in debates, including what the group calls the "gladiator," the one who regularly initiates arguments to prove others wrong.

When entering the ring with a gladiator or anyone else, it's important to be in control of one's emotions, said Bill Doherty, Braver Angels co-founder and professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota.

"A lot of times where the conversations start is that somebody else in your family or social world says something that bugs you, and then you go after them," he told me. "This is not the best way to start the conversation. Don't start when you're annoyed."

But it's often harder to stay calm when discussing politics with a relative than with almost anybody else, in part because of how family baggage can possess us. A Braver Angels worksheet on family and politics lists examples of phrases that reveal old resentments, derailing discussion, such as "You're not the boss of me," "You've never taken me seriously," or "You think you're the smart/enlightened/holy one."

One helpful strategy is to talk with relatives one-on-one, especially with gladiators who are riled up by an audience. Other tactics include practicing beforehand and simply reminding ourselves that we don't have to regress to childhood.

During the conversation, we should avoid pejorative labels, generalizations and the impulse to ascribe the most extreme beliefs to the other person. Be mindful of the fact that we're all in different echo chambers that bombard us with information that reinforces our prejudices and portrays the other side as a monolith.

Braver Angels suggests four steps for meaningful conversations with gladiators: Clarify, Agree, Pivot and offer Perspective (CAPP).

Clarify: Be curious about what your relative really believes, and paraphrase what you think they believe as accurately as possible. Don't shade or distort what they've said. Ask questions from a place of humility.

Agree: Find common ground, such as a shared belief, value or objective. Tell the relative that you see eye-to-eye with them on that.

Pivot: Let the relative know you'd like to share your perspective. Braver Angels suggests the phrase, "Can I give you my thoughts on this issue?"

Perspective: Offer your perspective if you get a green light. Use personal stories and humanizing anecdotes. If your relative doesn't want to hear your thoughts, return to the first two steps or exit the conversation.

Braver Angels suggests settling for short and sweet conversations. The end goal can't be to win the argument, but to connect more deeply with the other person. If the conversation goes well or better than expected, express appreciation. If your relative lectures and attacks the whole time, then it's best to end the conversation and to do so without returning fire.

Some of us may have a greater gift for these conversations. Others may understandably want to avoid bullying and old patterns of behavior. But closing off communication can't change those patterns. What can inspire change is the effort to connect.

There's a part of my father that longs to connect with me. There are other parts, too. But the part that got through to me is the part that never stopped trying to connect. I gave up for a time. Now, I feel inspired to try again.

Jean Guerrero

Jean Guerrero is an opinion columnist at the Los Angeles Times. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)