Motive at the Thanksgiving Dinner Table

Ah Thanksgiving, a time to overindulge in turkey and stuffing, celebrate what you are thankful for with loved ones, and inevitably find yourself trapped in some politically-charged conversations with that one relative you see twice a year who insists on starting a dinner-table debate.  As someone who usually prefers to remain on the observing side of these arguments, I had ample time at my family’s Thanksgiving dinner table to observe the lexicon at play. 

And, with the lexicon in mind, I noticed the following: some of the discussions (which somewhat quickly and frequently become debates) feel productive, engaging, and meaningful, where different people at the table are interested in hearing the ideas of others and expressing their own counterpoints or concessions to those ideas.  Other discussions feel draining and pointless with the same two people going back and forth in circles while the rest of the table exchanges annoyed glances, waiting for the conversation to move elsewhere. 

So what is the key differentiating factor at play?  I think it has to do with motive, namely whether the person initiating the argument is doing so just for the sake of argument or whether they have a convincing case for why everyone at the table should be interested in and care about that discussion.  In other words, just as is the case when we engage in a scholarly debate when we write, the person who wants to start a debate at the dinner table has to consider and defend the “so what” of the debate they want everyone to engage in for it to become a meaningful, dynamic discussion. 

When my Uncle mockingly said to me, “Hmmm let me guess; you’re either voting for Warren or Bernie,” he was just trying to be snarky.  He was asking me to engage in an argument without giving me any reason to care about engaging with him.  On the other hand, when my cousin pointed out how strange it was that we were troubled while watching a documentary about the consequences of meat consumption but then were content to feast on an array of animal products, everyone became interested in arguing the proper way to explain or solve this tension.  My uncle posed an argument to me that had no motive; my cousin posed a puzzle to our dinner table that encouraged people to come together to offer solutions.  And in turn, the former conversation ended quickly without any interesting sharing of ideas, while the latter conversation evolved into an exciting, meaningful debate.

–Danielle Hoffman ’20