Breakfast with Uncle Bob

My family’s political views range all over the spectrum, from libertarian to liberal, with lots of issue-by-issue gradations in between. I was nonetheless surprised to get into a political discussion over breakfast (while out in Utah) with a brother-in-law with whom I expected to disagree.

I’m pretty good at disagreeing, and I was even before I spent decades making my living in courtrooms. I have a reflexive yeah-but capability, and general skepticism toward self-appointed authority figures, which probably comes from being the youngest girl-child in a large, opinionated, family. In sixth grade I took great pride in debating whether marijuana should be legalized from different viewpoints at different times of the school year.

I won the debate both times, which I considered all in good fun–on that issue, at that time, when nobody had any real intention of legalizing pot.

Now, political discussions seem so much more fraught, and we see so little respectful debate, or skillful, informed rhetoric modeled for us. We seen even less good faith problem-solving collaboration. Growing up, I read George Will and watched Bill Buckley, who could both be contentious and even pompous, but never snide or demeaning to somebody with opposing views.

So imagine my surprise, when Uncle Bob and I–who “should” have disagreed on nearly everything, right down the line–instead agreed on a lot sources of present societal difficulties. On topics as diverse as campaign finance reform, the Fairness Doctrine, age limits rather than term limits, off-shoring jobs, the federal budget, and what to do about wealth inequality, Bob and I were of largely the same mind.

We found differences in terms of, “So what do we do about these issues?” but we agreed generally on causal factors. Any skilled negotiator will tell you, that agreeing on a mutually acceptable definition of a problem is step one in getting parties to work together to resolve that problem.

So I was encouraged by the conversation, but also daunted. Why wouldn’t I expect that a guy who’s been part of my family for decades, a thoughtful man, one cares for our planet and the denizens thereof, would have some common ground with me? Maybe even a lot of common ground? I know better, and going forward, I hope to do better.

Where do you see people doing a good job of disagreeing without being disagreeable? I am interested in this issue not just as voter and former attorney, but also as a novelist. If my protagonists can’t learn to have honest, respectful differences with each other, then their happily ever after might not be ever after, after all.


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10 comments on “Breakfast with Uncle Bob

  1. I see people disagreeing politely when not too much is at stake in terms of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I also see differing opinions co-existing when a bone deep trust and respect for the other opinion’s humanity are present. Unfortunately, how agreeable I am depends on the situation and the potential threat to me and mine’s well-being.

  2. This week’s blog reminded me of family debates that my ex husbands family had when all the family came together.It always ended up with raised voices and upsets.Always the same topic _____The North/South divide.We all reside in Kent.(South England).My ex husbands family came from the North and came South when they purchased a Guest house in Margate(a seaside resort)in 1963.I met my husband and his two sisters also married southern lads. I found it upsetting when my husbands mother and father and uncles kept on about the local people not being very friendly or helpful. This went on for years and was not pleasant I They made a lot of money and made friends and never went back up North. All their Grandchildren were born South of the border.I can understand it must have been hard in the beginning and a bit of a shock but to hold it with such bitterness for the remainder of their lives is tragic.One of my sister in law mentioned this recently when we were discussing family get togethers.We both agreed how sad and negative and precious hours that were lost never to be reclaimed.The present day families are all doing well and seem to be coping in this part of England.Anger and rage should not be tolerated in debates if ones temper can not be controled

  3. Pingback: Of Deals, Dukes, and Uncle Bob | Grace Burrowes | I believe in love.

  4. I love watching middle and high school students learn to debate. Establishing the rules of engagement makes such a difference, as does seeing a person in real life.
    My dad grew up in a wealthy family with servants who were people of color. He would make horrible racial generalizations, but, when there was a face to a situation, could be extremely generous and open-minded. It was difficult for me to hold his contradictory positions in mind, but I think we all do it to some extent. And I’d rather be able to address the controversy and tough conversations rather than seethe while “keeping the peace.”

  5. I feel like when guests are sharing a meal at our table, they are generally pretty polite, even when conflicts arise…not wanting to “bite the hand” and all that. However, should discussions turn contentious or downright rude, they will not get another invite. I guess, also, over more than 45 years of dinner parties, we have weeded out those who can’t disagree politely. But, in today’s passionate, divided political environment, that politeness and consideration is sadly becoming more and more rare. Stay safe. Stay well everyone!

  6. Playing mah jongg. Maybe it is because we are actively engaged in a common interest at the same time, are in play mode and maybe therefore less defensive, or just that we are moving our bodies a bit. Maybe it is just luck. With one exception, I play with folks that I met only around learning mah jongg, not people I knew already or with whom I had another shared interest. So far there has been a great deal of empathy and kindness when Big Issues have come up.

  7. No where, really. My siblings and I mostly get along together, and usually don’t discuss controversial subjects.

    My dad and I used to debate each other on topics in the newspaper – a good memory I cherish. I also used to enjoy arguing politics with my friend Ann – sometimes we’d argue each other into switching sides. Both of them are gone now.

  8. I have found that by asking a simple question, “why do you feel that way?” A whole universe of possibilities opens up. Oddly enough, or maybe not so oddly, there are some people who are just parroting what they have heard or read on social media and can’t explain in depth why they hold certain positions. I do wish people would try and use basic human kindness and basic good sense, and add a dash of civility. We don’t all have to agree on anything at all, but we seem to have forgotten that precious concept of a middle ground. That precious space may not be completely agreeable to anyone, but workable for all. That would be progress, I think.

  9. This really hits home. It reminds me of one of the things I miss most about my dad. We could debate just about any subject. I mean really debate. Factually, respectfully. So many times those debates opened my eyes to facts I had previously ignored or wasn’t even aware of. We listened to each other’s arguments. So much of what I see in today’s news shows how we are failing to listen to each other. It’s like the volume keeps going up so people can be heard over others but no one is actually listening. I really miss having someone to honestly debate with. My dad and I could always agree to disagree and I try to carry that lesson with me into all my dealings with others.

  10. In the Huxley-Wiberforce debates following Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species, Bishop Wilberforce (rightly famous for his impassioned arguments to abolish Britain’s slave trade) made a snide comment against Huxley (aka “Darwin’s Bulldog”) along the lines of Huxley could claim apes for ancestors if he chose. Huxley counted this a misstep and remarked to a supporter on his team “the Lord hath delivered him into my hands,” and then tore Wilbetforce apart for the ad hominem attack, claiming that he’d rather have apes for ancestors than be related to someone who could pull a cheap debating trick. And the audience recognized this and sided with Huxley on principle. If only people could divorce the idea of disagreeing with ideas from needing to disregard a person now. Not that I’m saying the Victorian age was fully defined by rational argument— it wasn’t. Just, that that moment resonated with me.

    Thanks for bringing up this discussion! Long may respect for dialogue reign 🙂