Nontrivial Pursuit

How to survive your first post-election Thanksgiving

The author, his former head of marketing, and a significant investor in ideologically simpler times

Weird and painful as it is, somewhat less than half the country supports the presidential candidate you hate. This Thanksgiving is probably going to be the first time that you’ll have to interact with some of them up close. How should you deal?

A “no politics at the table” rule? Unpossible! And even if you do manage to grit your way through dinner, that still leaves hours of dangerous couch time. Have you been spending the past two weeks sharpening your best rhetorical spears in preparation? Put the sticks away.

Play a game instead. It might make everyone feel better, and make you a better advocate for your values.

I call it “Charlie’s Game,” named after investment titan Charlie Munger who said, “I never allow myself to hold an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.” Here’s how it works:

You go first. Let’s say that you voted for Hillary. Pick someone who supports the other side, say, Uncle Ted. Look at him with more goodwill than you think you’re capable of summoning right now, and tell him the best possible argument that you can muster for why he voted Trump. Try as hard as you can. Don’t mock, don’t parody, just give an argument that you think he’ll agree with. This part is really hard. You don’t have to believe it (you won’t), you’re just playing a game.

After you’ve finished speaking, see if he agrees. Ask him to rate your pro-Trump argument on a scale of one to ten. Get the other Trump supporters in the room to rate you as well. They’re not allowed to argue, just score your speech on how close it comes to their beliefs and how much it resonates with their internal explanations for why they support Trump. Write down your scores.

Now it’s Uncle Ted’s turn. He’s got to look you in the eye and recite the most convincing (to you) pro-Hillary position he can come up with. Score his performance. Is he even close to understanding what you feel? Have your ideologically compatible dinner guests give their scores as well. This part is kind of fun.

After these first two turns are complete, each side can give the other some pointers on how to make their arguments more convincing. Avoid the urge to argue here; you’re getting and receiving professional tips about how to do better in the next round.

Do the next round with two other people. Repeat a few times, hopefully getting the arguments to be more convincing to the other side, if not actually converging.

The winner is the player with the nicest sweater.

Why do this?

It’s fun. Ok fine, it’s good for you.

There’s a cognitive theory that for every important idea, there’s a shallow argument for it and a shallow argument against and they’re both wrong. There’s also a deep argument in favor and a deep argument against. And they’re both right. Or at least they both contain grains of truth, though these may seem small and bitter and hard to discern right now. The world moves forward when the best elements of the deep arguments are tested against each other, reconciled and synthesized.

When we hold a position dearly, we tell ourselves the deep argument, but we attack the shallow argument of the other side. That’s why political debates fail to resonate most of the time. We start to believe that our opponents really do hold the shallow version of their positions, which means they’re trivial, or stupid, or evil. Some of them are, but not most of them.

Probably not the ones at Thanksgiving with you.

Are you frightened by the election? It doesn’t diminish the legitimacy of your fears to try to understand the motivations that feel authentic to people who voted the other way. They’re not embracing their positions to frighten you, though that may be an effect of their positions that this game can help them understand.

When you fail to engage with the deep arguments of those who disagree with you, you’re telegraphing a lack of empathy that closes down cognitive paths. You might be making a good argument for your convictions, but you’ve shut down your opponents’ ability to hear it. And they’ve shut down yours. Our brains crave the deep arguments, but if we only hear them from people we agree with, we retract into our bubbles. And the world stays stuck.

Don’t think the other side deserves empathy this time? To quote Tyrion Lannister, “We make peace with our enemies, not our friends.

I’ll say it again: this game is hard.

The point here is not to minimize your disdain for the opposing position, nor is to normalize any candidate or policy. What you’re trying to normalize is constructive discourse with people whose views you profoundly disagree with, in the name of getting unstuck as a nation. You’re trying to be as effective as possible in making the next normal better than the current one.

This game tries to get you to engage with the deep arguments. It probably won’t change your, or Uncle Ted’s, opinions, but it might strengthen your values by sharpening them against the authentically best arguments of the other side. And the learned empathy might make it more likely that you’ll come closer to agreeing on the next important idea. And that can make next Thanksgiving better than this one.

As for me, I’ll try to extend that empathy to people in more tenuous positions in society and think about work that can reduce their apprehension and alarm. It doesn’t matter whose “side” they’re on; my goals are not advanced by anyone living in fear.

It’ll be better than talking about the turkey for four hours.