Thinking about democracy & the dinner table

“This is what has to change,” my brain whispered to me one morning.  I had wakened up remembering a dinner the night before, when ten of us managed to eat and drink too much for a whole evening without ever discussing the Paris massacre. It was barely hours since the horror, yet not a word. Or was it only me who wanted to talk about it?

My tentative theory is that we sometimes do things like drinking too much or avoiding serious discussions, for the same reason: avoiding anger and conflict. We’re avoiding discomfort. So the prevailing etiquette in this particular dinner forum for decades has been that serious subject matter is not appropriate here. When it’s mostly family,  the aim is entertainment.

Which is a shame, when I think about the brainpower that has eaten and drunk and laughed around our table.  Not to mention the stimulating pleasure of a great discussion!  And imagine if all that brainpower had applied itself to important issues affecting our everyday lives – like climate change, or whether to allow more Syrian refugees into the country, or why we should be happy to pay a higher tax rate for a quality national daycare program. Or why serious discussion arouses anger in a predictable few – and discomfort in others.

I wonder how many families across the country are similarly inclined? In our case, I think some of the underlying ‘family sub-culture’  is dominated by the insecure need to win with a “destroy the opposition” approach — and anxiety in the face of aggressiveness or hostility.  And there are just conditioned reactions — which can be triggered by a word or even a mood.

These reactions have not been limited to family dinners. I’m remembering decades ago when I hosted a monthly discussion group at home. I can no longer remember the subjects we debated. What remains with me is those startling moments when all conversation stopped, because one person blurted out the kind of angry comment that attacks the messenger instead of the message.  They may feel something like if I can make you seem like an idiot, you might shut up and stop making me feel threatened… Yet why should anyone have to feel intimidated at a dinner-table discussion?

 These are attacks — not nourishing, not stimulating contributions. Some of the most intelligent people I know have done this. I see it as the by-product of families and schools that bend, fold, mutilate and staple us into something that fits their formula. Authoritarian cultures  reinforce this behaviour.

I’ve found for the most part the people who chronically become angry in discussions have little concern for the impact of their outbursts. Instead, they are completely wrapped up in their own feelings. It’s as if they feel justified or entitled, somehow.  I remember when one such participant left the house in a fit of anger, effectively ending the evening. I eventually ended the discussion groups, with the intention of starting again if I could ever figure out a way to overcome such destructive input. It’s been over 30 years, and I’m finally thinking seriously about it.

There was little emotion expressed around the dining table of my childhood; outbursts were unacceptable, so the tendency was for a family member to occasionally leave the room in a huff. What choice was there? As an adolescent, I was seen as the ‘neurotic one’, with my confused emotional expressions of frustration. Decades of alternative experiences, therapy and learning provided some insight about what was going on back then.

Because I believe passionately in the value and importance of intellectual discussion — that  it’s essential in a democracy — I became preoccupied with understanding how and why this sort of thing happens.

With some people I’ve known, it’s been an obvious case of role modelling: parents who, for example, must be right even at the cost of their child’s curiosity or confidence – in too many cases long-since snuffed out. Sometimes, there’s a family culture of competition – extremely competitive parents encouraging the same in their children.

And then there is the critical-judgmental (often self-righteous) approach – at the root of much fear of public speaking. Of course teachers can have a similar affect, for which there is no excuse. And in my view, English-Canada tends to be a critical-judgmental ‘culture’ at the best of times. If you didn’t get it at home, don’t worry, you’ll pick it up somewhere. In none of these cases is “exploring an idea together” highly valued.

Sounds like I want to change a whole culture and I guess I do. After all, the widespread result seems to be that most people don’t say what they think if it’s at all controversial. So how can I learn from them, if they don’t express their point-of-view? Rather than argue with someone – as my European and French-Canadian friends have done – English-Canadians are more likely to do their ‘arguing’ behind our backs.

In my view avoiding or discouraging argument seriously damages  democracy. For democracies to thrive, we citizens must be able to wonder if we’re wrong. We need to be curious about ideas different from our own and why people hold them. If I stick rigidly to my beliefs, and treat others as idiotic or dangerous for theirs, what impact will that have on our already weak democracy?

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11 Responses to Thinking about democracy & the dinner table

  1. john zande says:

    Thoroughly agree. A healthy society can, and should, discuss anything and everything. Terror, though, is difficult because, I think, we can’t easily wrap our heads around it. It is uncomfortable, but that may just be the sign that we need to talk about it.

  2. This is a complex sociological phenomenon. In addition to cultural factors, human psychology and the general quality of life within a population affect conflict-aversion in casual discussion. I recall dialog from a movie where a poor black person responded to a white friend who spoke of civil rights and social justice: “You have to be rich to think like that,” he said.

    Democracy thrives in a healthy environment where its people are educated, engaged, and feel very much part of the larger society. Disagreements over politics and policy aren’t so divisive because life is generally good. We can afford to be magnanimous.

    Not so when times are tough. High social stress is extremely polarizing. Topics which might not be so controversial in better times often ignite casual discussion like a tinderbox. I think people understand this instinctively, and that’s why they might tend to avoid such conflict with friends and family.

    Unfortunately, democracy doesn’t perform well in an environment of high social stress. As the people become more polarized, so to does politics.

    • Yes! Lots of food for thought — and I already feel a blog coming on! 🙂 I keep trying to understand how our “dinner table” relates to the ‘bigger picture’ that you’re talking about…. because no doubt it does! What skills and awareness do we need to transmit to our ‘next generation’ that will make them a) care and b) have the skill to participate? ‘Cuz lord knows our education systems are not doing it! 😦

  3. Hariod Brawn says:

    Thankyou for this interesting article, which held my attention throughout. I agree, fear is often a major factor in frank discussion, and from that the verbal aggression may flow. The root of that protective tendency seems to be the identification with thought, meaning that what I think – in the sense of my current beliefs – defines not only my social construct, but my internalised (egoic/reflective) model of self; who I am, no less. So, my beliefs become personalised in a very visceral sense, and if you attack them, it is as if you attack my physicality too. Things get heated, and the chemicals (neutrophilic leukocytes, apparently) begin coursing through my veins triggering ancient, evolved, defensive responses. The remedy is of course to cease this identification with the objects that float around my cranial cavity, to see thought just for what it is, and not as what I am – and to see the same as regards others too.

    • Exactly! 🙂 Reminds me of my late brother declaring decades ago “As far as I’m concerned, thinking and feeling are the same thing!” We humanoids have such a long way to go! 😦 Thanks for the feedback! 🙂 — nice to “see” you)

  4. Anonymous says:

    There’s always the possibility that when eating, many people revert to the social default of not discussing politics, religion or sex. Was the genesis of that ‘rule’ to ensure
    proper digestion? I feel that anywhere is a good place to talk about issues that concern us all. We are free to do that and so we should. You’ve given us something to ponder.

  5. Reflecting on all this rich feedback finds me suddenly thinking that it’s up to us (parents etc?) to teach the next generation how to “argue”, share a different perspective etc — without offending. That’s a communication skill — in my view – requiring a combination of self-discipline, self-control and sensitivity. When I think of the stakes, a challenge well worth taking on 🙂

  6. Sorry for my absence! I think you can find the background at and search for keyword ‘Paisley’, and then ‘Folklore’…. I 100% agree on ‘Critical Thinking’ and was thrilled a year or two ago when Ontario gave the go-ahead to an expert to design an experimental high school course on critical thinking -and try it out at several schools…. Must try to find out what happened! 🙂

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