Essay №11: The Dinner Doctrine

An Antiquarian Echo- Political Abstinence

“There are two things you don’t talk about at dinner: 1. Religion and 2. Politics.” — Someone at every family gathering.
“The Picture of Dorian Grey” By: Oscar Wilde

I can hear my mother’s voice in the back of my mind, like a faint whisper of something stretched out along a long antiquarian echo: “Don’t talk politics or religion at the dinner table.” An antiquarian echo.

Political Abstinence, for the sake of ‘keeping the peace,’ is a moment of privilege. A moment of privilege that is so clear, one could make the correlation of political abstinence is to privilege as the Pope is to Catholicism. I grew up in a community where a lot of people didn’t like to talk politics. In fact, the only politics that were discussed were community politics. And when I say ‘community politics,’ I mean how the coach’s son got more playing time than the other kids. Trust me, I was the coach’s son and I couldn’t make a basket if my life depended on it; but nevertheless, there I was running up and down the court for four periods tripping over my Velcro straps.

Everyone in their life has been told: “no politics or religion at the dinner table.” And I can guarantee, you’ve obliged. I’ve obliged. But this acceptance of political abstinence has dictated the way we view politics in the way that a maestro conducts their orchestra. This antiquarian echo is what made Joe-Shmo believe that Hillary Clinton should be “locked up” and that a uniquely unqualified individual could actually make some resemblance of a president. Now, this is not an essay of why your vote matters and how elections have consequences, that would become a dissertation. This is about how our political abstinence has ushered in an era of political ambivalence.

I wouldn’t be able to claim any validity to this essay unless I told a tale in which I surrendered to political abstinence. It was two days before Thanksgiving and by this time, Donald Trump had won the election. Every year, my group of friends and I get together to dine and have lasagna, pasta, and garlic bread; catch up on each other’s lives and reminisce about our younger years. This time, however, felt different. We were all sitting among a MAGA supporter, someone who chanted “lock her up.” Someone who supported Donald Trump from the moment he announced his candidacy and made excuse after excuse after Mr. Trump mocked the disabled, boasted about sexual assault and illustrated a miraculous lack of an elementary school education in civics.

Before we gathered around the table, it was requested that nobody talk politics, discuss the election or any of that sorts. In an unanimous voice vote, the motion was passed and the silence was the main course. Within the chamber, sat different sexual orientations, biscotti, intellectual obstacles, various races, histories of sexual assault, garlic bread, disability discrimination, cannoli, depression, anxieties, lasagna and a MAGA supporter.

The tension was so high, that Act 3 of Macbeth looked pale in comparison. Eyes were unanimously locked on my silence throughout the dinner. While the MAGA supporter ate as eagerly as the rest of us, there was something grotesque in the way their food slid sinisterly from fork to mouth, mouth to the stomach. I observed them, watched them, and begged to see what physical force propelled them to shout “lock her up.” But it wouldn’t be until months later that I would understand that the physical force I was looking for, was nothing to be seen. In fact, it was nothing to be heard. I sat there emulating the evil in which I fought so hard against. It was silence. It was political abstinence.

We stop talking about politics at the dinner table when things get uncomfortable.

The thing about political abstinence is that it’s not political at all. You can’t be abstinent on your values. Your politics are your values, and your values are your everything. ‘No politics or religion at the dinner table,’ is an antiquarian echo that fed into the rise of MAGA. A power left unchecked is a power that knows no limitations. The burden of proof is no friend of this antiquarian echo.

But this political abstinence and, what I’ve coined as the “Dinner Doctrine,” bare the question: what was I being silent on? I sure wasn’t being silent on how he likely wanted to reduce the corporate income tax rate from 35% to 15%. Or I wasn’t being silent to avoid an awkward conversation on the six marginal income tax brackets of 10, 15, 25, 28, 33 and 35 — I mean, can you imagine if I spoke up with a mouth full of garlic bread and yelled across the table: “Why do you want to condense the tax bracket you fiscal hawk!?”

No. This wasn’t about taxes or jobs or how much we each loved America. This was about the dinner table. This was about insecurity. We didn’t say, “No dinner or religion at the dinner table” because we wanted to avoid a debate on the tax code. It was said to avoid a discussion on sexual identity, religion, race, disability discrimination or gender .

The Dinner Doctrine, in my experience, is built on the premise of avoiding social issues, like LGBTQ rights, race, disability rights or religions other than Christianity. It is built on privilege and the unchecked exercise of power. Those of us who have experienced the Dinner Doctrine know the awkward laugh we give when someone makes a backhanded comment on which bathroom transgenders are allowed to go into.

This doctrine begs for solutions but yields more questions than answers. The Dinner Doctrine seems to be used as a policy instrument by predominantly white social conservatives who have conditioned their children to scant any broader, diverse mode of thinking. I don’t believe it’s overt, it’s conditioned. I believe the Baby Boomer generation has been conditioned not to speak on social issues; simply because they grew up in a society where power was concentrated under three elements: heteronormativity, white, male. So as adults, where power and control is gifted to the adult or parent in the room, they do all they can to avoid an uncomfortable topic or discussion, simply to “keep the peace.” A habit that some in my generation have mirrored from their parents.

Why is it easier for a nuclear family to discuss welfare than the right to marry for two queer persons and/or seeing a queer couple in public?

These are questions that beg answers. They don’t beg answers for the sake of policy or political capital but they beg answers because they’ve been asked to not speak at the dinner table. The mentality that the Dinner Doctrine fosters often times moves beyond the intimate setting of the dining room and into society. Studies have found that generic messaging about equality aren’t effective in countering insecure and uncomfortable positions on the aforementioned topics.

The consequences of this doctrine are serious. They foster a dangerous message of unification-based in insecurity. Queer individuals, black people, latinx people, women and persons with disability have to be more thoughtful in their choices about when and how to engage in difficult and nuanced discussions about difference. From my experience in my own community, most people will talk about how supportive they are of LGBTQ rights until it’s their child that comes out as gay.

Gay is an epithet to describe someone who is “different.” I put “different” in quotes because I’ve never been in a situation where someone identified a straight person as: “Oh that’s Johnny, he’s straight.” But I have been a situation where I’ve heard: “Oh that’s Johnny, he’s gay.” Can you imagine if during ‘Friendsgiving’ I spoke up and said, “Hey guys, we should really talk about how only twenty states provide protections against sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in employment and the private sector.” Do you think it would receive the same response as, “Wow, I really wish the economy was booming and we had more jobs. Did you see those people begging for drug money next to the Dunkin Donuts and highway?” Of course not. Both political in nature, except one, would meet the standard of review of what is permissible for dinner table conversation.

I’m not saying that I should have prepared a passionate speech on the greatness of America and presented it with red wine in my right hand, the speech on the table and meatball hanging tightly onto my fork in my left hand. I’m merely asking the thematic question of how did we get here? As mentioned before, “No politics or religion at the dinner table” isn’t cited to avoid a discussion on the tax code. It’s to avoid calling certain insecurities out for what they are.

When someone says, “Don’t talk politics or religion at the dinner table,” what they are really are asking is, “please don’t question my whiteness, heterosexuality, ablism or gender.”

“All politics is local.” — Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill

All politics is local. Politics begin with values. Values begin at the dinner table. To parents who may read this, to my generation, the generation after me and the one that will come, let your kids talk politics and religion at the dinner table. Let them question why you’re uncomfortable with two women kissing. Let them question why there are only two black children in their school. Let them question their own identity. When you stifle conversations that make you uncomfortable in a setting that is supposed to be a safe place, you stifle equality. And while my sentence with “equality” may not prove to be effective, I’m going to still use it when my children discuss politics at our dinner table.

I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream — I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediaevalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal — to something finer, richer than the Hellenic ideal, it may be. But the bravest man amongst us is afraid of himself. — Oscar Wilde: “The Picture of Dorian Grey”