Category Archives: Armchair Sociology

Why We’re All Afraid to Speak Our Minds at Thanksgiving

Here’s what’s going to happen in most American homes this Thanksgiving:

Most of us will travel — maybe across town, maybe across the country — to share a dinner or two with our family and friends. We’ll eat, we’ll drink, we’ll sit around and watch football. On Friday, we’ll jockey for position in the good-natured tradition of Black Friday, as we hope to score a feel-good deal on some early gifts for Christmas. And then on Monday we’ll go back to work (where we’ll scour the web for some Cyber Monday deals, amirite?).

And we’ll do our best to not say a single word about Ferguson, or Bill Cosby, or GamerGate, or any other contentious topic that’s been in the news for months but which wouldn’t make for polite holiday dinner table conversation.

Or, to rephrase:

We’ll spend large amounts of time and money to travel uncomfortably long distances to see our family (whom we’re obligated to keep in touch with due to the sociological vagaries of lineage) and friends (many of whom we’re really only acquaintances with because they never left our hometown but we’re still friends on Facebook, which means their voluntary exposure to POVs other than the ones they grew up with is already pretty limited).

Once there, we’ll eat more food in a day than some Americans will see in a month, and we’ll drink beer from one of a handful of global beverage conglomerates who offer us the appearance of “choice” in such a way that it flatters our individual sensibilities, even though the money all flows back to the same few pockets.

We’ll do this while we watch dozens of athletes with known histories of domestic violence, drug abuse, and other criminal records, all competing to win a game in a multi-billion-dollar league that is also a tax-exempt nonprofit. These games will be played in stadiums mostly paid for by municipal tax dollars, and their televised contests will be funded by the advertising dollars of other corporations who’d like you to buy their products which were probably produced overseas so as to avoid needlessly contributing to the American tax base.

Then we’ll give these same corporations even more of our money on Black Friday and Cyber Monday as we race to play a game we know is rigged, all in the hopes of proving our love to our family and friends on a religious holiday that’s been stapled atop a pagan ritual. And the family and friends we’re striving to impress with our shrewd gift purchases are basically the same people we’re avoiding having any real conversations with.

Why do we do this?

The irony, I think, is that most of us who find ourselves biting our tongue on Thanksgiving (or on Facebook) for fear of inciting a lecture from our “racist uncles or hippy cousins,” as the stereotypes go, is that we’ve been trained not to rock the boat, because that boat is what got us here.

Problems Are for Other People

I come from a family where the number one tenet when my mom was growing up was “keep your nose clean” — as in, “don’t get in trouble, don’t talk about trouble, don’t tell anyone else about any trouble the family is having, and don’t talk about anyone else’s troubles.” I’m not sure if this was only a by-product of Polish Catholic households or of general America in the ’50s, but the instruction there is very clear: don’t show weakness. Don’t rock the boat. You’re here in the land of plenty; what could you possibly be upset about? And why would you ever give anyone else the opportunity to find a fault with you?

Not that there weren’t problems, of course. But they were someone else’s problems; someone else would have to fix them. You just take care of yourself; take care of your own.

60 years later, we have social media and split-second judgments of people and actions, right or wrong. But those knee-jerk reactions are usually the by-product of our ingrained perceptions of right and wrong, of how we’ve been raised to believe the system (be it political, economic, or theological) is supposed to work. If it works for you, you’re doing it right. If not? Well, that’s their business; they need to get themselves right.

We’re also sitting in our family homes, invited there (or obligated to be there) by the very people who, in some way, sacrificed and paid for us to be where we are right now, both in life and at their table. How dare we inconvenience their worldview by mentioning our own? How dare we insinuate that we — much less they — might be part of a systemic problem that’s so large and historic that we’re all incapable of even realizing we’re in it?

This isn’t why they invited us over to celebrate the pilgrims.

Besides, it’ll all blow over eventually. It always does.

And even if you have a point, well… what can you do, right?

Better to just compliment the stuffing and say a prayer and hope that someone else figures out a way to solve the world’s problems. After all, who are we to presume we could change the world?

And we have so much to do already.

And Christmas is coming.

And it’s so cold.