Sam Sharff has spent the past couple of weeks dreading Thanksgiving table talk.

The 31-year-old from Yarmouth thinks Donald Trump’s election as president was, for women and minority groups, “a slap in the face at best, an attack on their personal value at worst.” But on Thanksgiving she’ll drive to Concord, New Hampshire, to share the holiday with her dad, P.J. Cistulli, who was a volunteer in Trump’s campaign and helped him get elected.

Cistulli says he voted for Trump because the “socialist type” of government in recent years hasn’t worked. But he recognizes his children don’t agree with him and he’ll likely have to “tread lightly” when talking politics around them this season.

“I love my dad. He’s a good man and a wonderful father, which helps make (the political disagreements) seem strange to me,” Sharff said. “I have no idea how I’m going to deal with Thanksgiving. … I guess I’m glad to know I’m not alone.”

After one of the most bitterly divisive presidential elections in years, one that many say has left us with two very different visions of America, Thanksgiving dinner tables around the country could become political battlegrounds. Holiday gatherings always bring the potential for political dust-ups. But this year, the tension around what divides us, including questions surrounding race and human rights, seems higher than ever.

Preparations for familial debates are being made in very visible ways. Colleges and social justice organizations are posting online tip sheets, giving people advice on how to engage in constructive political discussions between the carving of the turkey and the slicing of the pumpkin pie. On Tuesday, Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government organized an online question-and-answer session about how to talk to friends and family about politics at Thanksgiving.

UNKNOWNS, DIFFERENT STRATEGIES

For many, Thanksgiving this year brings many unknowns. How will people sit with friends and family who voted for a candidate they think will be (or would have been) ruinous for the country? Will they try to shout some sense into each other? Will they shroud the holiday in silence, afraid to offend? Or will people use Thanksgiving dinner as an experiment in civil discourse, trying to find out why people voted how they did and where they can find common ground?

“It’s up to everyone to find a way to discuss these things with respect for one another, and it starts with relationships,” said Mark Kingwell, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto and author of several books on public discourse. “You have to live with family and friends, so that might be a good place to start talking.”

Sharff, who has a 3-month-old daughter, worries that she might be too sleep-deprived to be civil if her father tries to debate her or other family members at dinner. She’s hopeful that the baby will serve as a diversion and protect her from too much engagement.

Sharff voted for Hillary Clinton, but with “some doubts.” She doesn’t consider herself politically active, not like her father is. But she says she wants to stand up for what she believes is “the right side of this thing” and to support women and others who feel threatened by a Trump presidency.

Cistulli, 63 and the owner of an insurance agency, thinks discussions and disagreements among family and friends about the political direction of the country are “healthy.” He disagrees with some of the broader criticisms of Trump, including that he’s a racist and a sexist.

“I don’t think he’s a racist. He employs a lot of people of different ethnicities. He employs a lot of women, including his own campaign manager,” Cistulli said. “I think it’s healthy and important to talk about policies, like decreasing the debt or abiding by laws on immigration.”

UNDERSTANDING THE OTHER SIDE

Liz Smith of Camden thinks she understands some of the reasons her father, Roger Smith, voted for Trump. Roger Smith is generally a fiscal conservative but more liberal on social issues. He really wanted a change in the country’s direction, and he did not like Clinton or the fact that former President Bill Clinton would be at her side.

“He believes the Clintons would destroy the country as much as people think Trump will destroy the country,” said Liz Smith, 36, who was a delegate from Maine for Bernie Sanders at the Democratic National Convention. “I don’t support how my dad voted, but I think I understand it.”

Smith won’t be seeing her father on Thanksgiving, but she will be with him at Christmas. She’s glad to have a month or so for things to calm down some before a family gathering.

Roger Smith, 72, believes Trump will be more effective at spurring economic growth and putting people back to work than Clinton would have been. He tries to look more at policies and positions and vote for the candidates who support the ones he favors.

“There were things I didn’t like (about Trump). I thought he was egotistical,” said Smith, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area. “But as one woman said, ‘I’m not hiring him to be my husband.’ ”

While his daughter may understand his vote, Roger Smith said voting for Trump has caused “friction” between him and other family members.

“You end up having to deal with it,” he said. “It’s your family, and you love them.”

Jessica Whitten, a clinical therapist who lives in North Yarmouth, will host Thanksgiving dinner at her home with people of various political positions. Whitten, 39, said political discussions are important, but not necessary at Thanksgiving. So she’s told her guests to focus on positive things in the world, and she’s encouraging them to share stories about acts of kindness and hope they’ve seen in the past few weeks. If anyone brings up the election or says anything negative about a candidate, they have to put $5 in a comment jar. The people who refrain from such comments get to split the cash.

The divides that the election, held just over two weeks ago, have exposed among family and friends are still too jarring for many people to talk about publicly, including several who declined to be quoted in this story.

POKING FUN, GETTING PREPARED

NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” famous for political skits, recently aired a parody of a commercial for retail giant Target that promoted the store as a place to run away from potential dinner-table donnybrooks at Thanksgiving. The spoof’s narrator talked about how people could find what they need at Target – namely, a really big parking lot where they could sit for a while, and a big, roomy store where nobody could find them.

Husband and wife Penn and Kim Holderness, both former TV news personalities, became internet hits a few years ago with parody videos featuring rewritten pop songs, especially around the holidays. For this Thanksgiving, they wrote a song called “Welcome to My Couch,” sung to “My House” by Flo Rida. In it, they lament that their guests want to argue Clinton versus Trump, while they want to watch football and drink.

“Welcome to my couch. I’ll be watching football. I prefer concussions over these discussions,” Penn Holderness sings.

The various tip sheets on the internet offering advice on mixing politics and holidays also use humor, while others are very serious.

The Louisville, Kentucky-based group Showing Up for Racial Justice has an online discussion guide to help white people steer the dinner table discussion toward Trump and the issue of race. The group argues that white people generally don’t discuss race with each other. Its “Thanksgiving Toolkit” even features a number that people can text if they get stuck during a conversation.

“We want to encourage everyone to go home for the holidays and have courageous and loving conversations with our families about race, Trump and what’s at stake,” the group’s website reads.

Arguing over politics at the Thanksgiving table might be what the country needs, if those arguments can be civil and constructive, said Keith Bybee, a professor of law and political science at Syracuse University and author of “How Civility Works.”

Civility, he said, is not a stationary, clearly defined concept. It is the baseline of respect the people in a society extend to people they don’t know, and the respect they expect in turn.

“You hear a lot of talk celebrating truth tellers and straight talkers – when we agree with them,” Bybee said. “But we need another way to indicate someone is a good and decent person, especially when we disagree. And that’s what civility is about. I’m optimistic about Thanksgiving. It’s a chance to have the disagreements and discussions we need to have, and build civility one person at a time.”

BROTHERS DIVIDED, BUT STILL CIVIL

For some Maine families, political disagreements are handled with civility because the family members have had a lot of practice at them.

Maine humorist Tim Sample, 65 and a Boothbay native, thinks Trump is “far and away the most dangerous person we’ve had in the White House.”

“I don’t think he knows anything about democracy or cares particularly about democracy,” he said.

Sample’s younger brother, Linc, voted for Trump, although he wasn’t an active supporter.

Linc Sample, a 56-year-old contractor and gun dealer in Boothbay Harbor, is a vocal supporter of conservative causes, including protecting the rights of gun owners. He’s gained some notoriety for using hand-painted signs on his property to post conservative messages, sometimes including Confederate flags.

He voted for Trump because “protecting our borders and our people and the Second Amendment” are important issues to him, and he thinks Trump will be more effective in those areas.

The Sample brothers don’t plan to see each other on Thanksgiving, but both say that when they do get together for a holiday or birthday in the near future, they can talk politics without sparking fireworks. That’s because they know each other so well.

“Tim and I are intelligent, reasonable people, and we both understand that we have different ways of trying to get to the same place,” said Linc Sample. “He doesn’t call me names, I don’t call him names.”

Tim Sample says people need to look at the character and actions of others and try to see what’s important to them.

“My brother has excellent character,” he said. “He loves his family and has integrity. But his political beliefs are wildly divergent from mine.”

 


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