How to Ruin Thanksgiving in a Few Easy Steps

How to Ruin Thanksgiving in a Few Easy Steps

By Heather Wilhelm - November 26, 2014

Don’t you love Thanksgiving? I sure do. Apparently, however, a lot of people kind of hate Thanksgiving—or, at the very least, they kind of hate their relatives.

Here’s Henry Alford writing in Friday’s New York Times: “The hurt feelings and the culture of psychological entrapment. The long-dormant resentments that seem to redouble like fingernails on a corpse. Like you, I have often wondered, ‘How might a hostage negotiator help the average American family get through Thanksgiving?’”

Ha! Actually, I have never wondered that—I tend to focus on constructing an elaborate Potemkin kitchen mess and dabbing some flour on my face so that I can fool people into thinking I made the pre-cooked Whole Foods turkey all by myself—but I certainly applaud Mr. Alford’s dramatic flair. (Also, as a woman of science, I must set the record straight: Fingernails, contrary to gross and popular opinion, do not grow or “redouble” after you die.)

Those quibbles aside, however, the invocation of holiday-season hostage negotiators isn’t as crazy as you might think. Despite decades of well-bred warnings not to discuss religion or politics at the dinner table, many Americans seem to approach Thanksgiving as their own private “Crossfire”—and many in the media, much like the prepubescent, hormone-crazed audience at a World Wrestling Entertainment showdown, are wildly cheering them on.

Take, which recently published a detailed guide on how to trounce your 90-year-old grandmother in a debate about whether or not Bill Cosby is a rapist. No, really, it’s true. The primer—which, rather tellingly, includes a looming, cartoon semi-circle of faceless yet racially diverse relatives—includes talking points on topics including the civil unrest in Ferguson (fun!), domestic violence in the NFL (lively!), the midterm elections (neither divisive nor boring!), “The Hunger Games” (seriously, people fight about this?) and, yes, the depressing, disturbing, and alleged predatory nature of one Cliff Huxtable, formerly “America’s Dad.”

Hey, can anyone pass the wine? Some absinthe? A lobotomy? Thank you.

Vox, sadly, is not alone. Since at least 2010, Slate has published an “annual guide to your Thanksgiving arguments,” which, at least last year, included thrilling details on things like filibuster reform. Unfortunately, at press time, they hadn’t yet posted their 2014 guide, so I don’t know exactly how I’m going to make my great-uncle cry—or, alternately, bore him to tears—this year. Think Progress, meanwhile, has a slightly more topical take: “How to Talk to Your Evangelical Uncle About Marriage Equality.” Hey, let me know how that goes!

The 300-pound granddaddy of this year’s Thanksgiving argument guides, however, comes from the Los Angeles Times: “What to Do If Your Crazy Right-Wing Uncle Comes for Thanksgiving,” crafted by one Joel Silberman. “Thanksgiving,” he writes, “is one of the only times when we encounter people we care about with whom we also disagree.” This is dubious, but let’s go with it for now.

It is important to argue about politics with these strange, exotic people, Mr. Silberman writes—rather than, say, learning about their personal lives—“if for no other reason than because face to face, we cannot ignore their humanity.” Otherwise, you see, we could reasonably assume that they’re your standard, garden-variety, likely Republican monsters. (Remember those faceless cartoon family icons over at Vox?)

Mr. Silberman not only lives in an airtight ideological bubble, but he also has terrible manners. Why is he writing Thanksgiving guides for the Los Angeles Times? I do not know. Last year’s—“15 Tips for How to Win Those Thanksgiving Political Debates”—is also a doozy, including the following suggestions: 1. Conduct opposition research before dinner, digging up “scandals” that “the other side will have no awareness of.” 2. Say “flattering” things like, “Oh, Uncle Keith, you’re too smart to believe that.” 3. Spread the pain: “Got a cousin who shares your point of view? Enlist her at the beginning of the evening to have a smartphone handy and look up corroborating information.”

Honestly, if Uncle Keith hasn’t punched this guy by now, I’d be shocked. With this in mind, I’d like to offer my own two Thanksgiving tips, which have the dual benefits of being both succinct and not crazy. First, the only person who ever “wins” a Thanksgiving dinner political argument is your oblivious drunk uncle, who, each year, like clockwork, craftily passes out in the corner chair. Second, if you have to research topics and memorize talking points at sites like so you can “win” a debate, you (a) probably don’t know your you-know-what from your elbow and (b) might very well be the worst person in the world.

Don’t worry, though, there are lots of fun things to talk about at Thanksgiving dinner! You could bring up the mysterious tension between general relativity and quantum field theory. You could celebrate the news that the guy who played Tim Riggins on “Friday Night Lights” is going to be on the next season of “True Detective.” You could inform everyone at the table that fingernails do not grow after you die.

Or—and get ready, because this one might sound a little crazy—you could show interest in other people, and maybe ask them some questions about themselves. But the best advice on heated Thanksgiving discussions, somewhat ironically, might just come from the hostage negotiators cited in the New York Times. As Frederick J. Lanceley, a former senior negotiator for the FBI, delicately put it: “Just shut up and listen.” Indeed. 

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

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