I disagree with my conservative parents, but I don't hate them
During my freshman year of college, just before Thanksgiving break, I went out to dinner with some new friends. We swapped stories about the eccentric relatives and technologically inept grandparents we would be having dinner with soon, and as is the case with almost every conversation between young people in America since the 2016 presidential election, politics inevitably came up. One of the girls at the table talked about how much she was dreading breaking bread with a relative of hers because of his political views. I echoed her frustration, admitting to the group that both my parents were conservatives.
They were shocked. “Thank God you didn’t turn out like that,” they said. “That must have been so hard for you.”
At the time, I agreed with their diminutive outcry. At that point in my life, I was a self-described “radical leftist.” I was a member of the Young Democratic Socialists of America and campaigned for Bernie Sanders in the primaries, but my leftism went further than just that. I had entered college in the fall of 2020, just months after the killing of George Floyd, and I had fully supported the “Racial Reckoning” that ensued over the summer. I would brazenly assert that all cops are bad, and I dismissed as uneducated anyone who held even slightly conservative opinions. I wouldn’t hesitate to defame the character of strangers based only on their political beliefs.
Too much time on the internet during the COVID-19 pandemic had turned me into a half-baked pseudo-revolutionary, despite never having read a single piece of leftist theory, let alone any opposing ideas. I was privileged enough to think that having relatives who advocated for tax cuts was a struggle. I assumed that because my Gen X parents didn’t understand the ins and outs of “inclusive dialogue,” I somehow knew more about the world than they did. My condescension toward them and their perspectives created a barrier in our relationship—a practice that is all too common with college-age people with “Trumpie relatives.”
My contempt for my parents’ beliefs caused serious damage to what was once a great relationship. I would slowly come to dread family dinner; I knew politics would inevitably come up, and instead of being able to have a rational discussion, I would allow my anger to overtake my ability to rebut or even understand my parents’ arguments. Sometimes these dinners ended with me leaving the table in tears after taking a simple disagreement as a personal attack. This division within my home created a toxic environment for all of us—something that could have been avoided if only I had been able to separate my family’s political beliefs from their personhood.
My first two years in college, however, had a transformative effect on my worldview. After taking history seminars and philosophy classes on the Enlightenment my perspective shifted profoundly—not only on politics, but also on morality, intellectualism, and the value of open discourse. As much as I’d like to attribute this change to compelling debates with my peers and professors, the real change came from the course material, which forced me to engage with opposing viewpoints. Reading Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, as well as a comprehensive book on the Russian Revolution, led me to slowly realize that blind partisan allegiance and rank tribalism are the actual threats to our democracy. Opening my mind to new concepts allowed me to establish beliefs that truly aligned with my values.
As much as it pained my nineteen-year-old self to admit it, I needed to listen to why my parents believed what they believed in order to understand them fully. Only then could I really decide whether I agreed with their perspectives or not. As I went through these changes, I realized that my former commitment to internet progressivism was predominantly a way for me to rebel against my family. I may not have dyed my hair or snuck out of the house in high school, but I did end up taking an unwavering stance against every belief that my parents held dear. As I began to open my mind and truly educate myself, however, I had to admit that I was harboring animosity toward my parents—who raised me with utmost care and met my every need—for reasons that were ultimately shallow. Political stances and intellectual values do inform someone’s character, but by no means do they define them. They do not supersede traits like love, sacrifice, and commitment, because these traits transcend politics. They are what make us human.
When my parents came to visit me at school in the spring of my sophomore year, I decided to apply my new line of thinking. This time around, I knew that I would be able to articulate my disagreement with anything my parents said without taking offense, and I also knew that I could separate my political stances from my own character and feelings towards my family. I had formed new ideas, and I found it easier to argue for policies and values that I actually believed in rather than toeing a prescribed party line. I also found it easier to see where my parents were coming from, even when I disagreed, and not condemn them as terrible people for it.
The dinner turned out to be peaceful, tear-free, and hardly focused on politics at all. I no longer felt the need to burn my parents for their conservative beliefs; I was now much more interested in understanding why they believed what they believed. Instead of a desire to dissent for the sake of dissent, I possessed a desire to learn. And I did.
It took me a year of personal reflection and a rigorous self-education in Enlightenment philosophy and the Buddhist teachings of patience and compassion to change my mind, but I don’t think those things are always necessary. All it really takes is some reflection on what means the most to you. Yes, our political beliefs are important and consequential, but are they more important and consequential than the love, sacrifices, shared memories, and interpersonal connections you have with your close friends and family?
If you’ve followed the same path that I did and cut loved ones out of your life due to their political beliefs, I would highly recommend giving them a call. Ask them how they are doing. Tell them how you’re doing. Open up and share your feelings with them, and listen when they do the same. I can almost guarantee they will be much more curious about your new job, your hobbies, or how your last vacation went than how you voted in the last election or whether you are for or against the police. They’re your family, and I’m willing to bet that in the vast majority of cases, they care much more about you than they do about your politics. You should return the favor.
It’s easy to give up on people. What is more difficult, but much more rewarding, is finding the ability within yourself to see the best parts of people first. Those “Trumpie” relatives we’ve decided to write off may be much more open to what you have to say if they know you aren’t attacking them even when you’re disagreeing with their ideas. If they know you love them despite your disagreement, they may actually listen and change their minds. And if you really listen to them, you might change yours.
My parents and I now enjoy long and spirited debates about every issue under the sun. They have changed my mind on some topics, and I have changed their minds on others. We laugh while we argue now, and have all become more well-rounded people for it. When my parents are no longer around, I know I will be so thankful that I was able to set aside the relative triviality of contemporary American politics in order to have a deep relationship with people I love.
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