It’s not an outlandish statement to say that many families have serious disagreements about basic questions like religion, medicine, race, and politics. It’s also not outlandish to say that most of us value our relationships and aren’t too interested in spending our family interactions in confrontations about the fact that Uncle Joe believes in crystal healing. This would lead to the conclusion that most of us should remain quiet when our family members say something we disagree with.
But most of the skeptic types I know also strongly believe that we have some moral imperative to tell people when they believe things we know to be false. This is especially true when it comes to harmful beliefs like anti-vaccination bunk or that super racist thing Grandma said. Live and let live is all well and good, but if someone else harbors bigoted beliefs or is putting themselves or their family in harm’s way by ignoring modern medicine, what’s a person to do?
I’ve been struggling with this question for the last couple of years, particularly around the holidays. There are some people you’re close enough to that you don’t worry about calling them out (my father once off handedly said “Muslims are so violent” and once I managed to pick my jaw off the floor I quickly corrected him. Five minutes of conversation and he conceded the point). The problem is the in-betweeners, the family members you see only once a year or every few months, the in-laws, or the family friends. The people you will in all likelihood continue to have a relationship with, but that you will probably never be close enough to speak openly, honestly, and vulnerably with.
Underlying this issue is a serious problem with how many of us are told to build our relationships: on obligation. It seems as if we’re slowly learning that you don’t owe anyone your time and attention but that those are things that are freely given to people who treat you well. But in the land of family, we’re still clinging to the idea that there should be people in our lives that we love and care about simply because of biology. This might sound somewhat heartless, but in no way am I advocating for ignoring your family. I’m advocating for better relationships with family.
If you want to have a relationship with someone, I suggest you commit. This is also a goal that I am setting for myself. There are family members that I want in my life. If I want them in my life, I need to put forth the effort to build and maintain a relationship with them. Family relationships require work, and when we put in the work we are more likely to be able to have difficult conversations together.
America is hardly a culture of vulnerability, but conversations like “hey, homeopathy doesn’t actually work and I’m really worried about you if you choose homeopathy instead of a doctor” require vulnerability. They require letting out that you care, whether about the person you’re speaking to or about the people they’re hurting. On a larger scale than just conversations with your family at awkward holiday meals, the discomfort and fear of openly saying you disagree with someone is rampant (ironic considering how quickly the internet will disagree with all of us).
At some point we might just have to bite the bullet and accept that someone might like us a little less if we openly admit our beliefs, or if we correct someone on their facts. But we also have to accept that if we care about people we should be willing to tell them when they’re misinformed. I don’t imagine anyone can jump straight to this place. But I’m making it my goal to say something real and honest to someone I care about this week. We’ll see where that leads.