Is your quasi-fascist uncle coming over for Christmas lunch? The one who drinks too much gin and loudly shares all his ghastly Seventies jokes about people’s skin colour and his reactionary opinions about women and domestic bliss. How close do you think you can sit him to your daughter, the one who will pass sarcastic comment on murderous Turkey eaters while singing the virtues of Jeremy Corbyn?
You also want to watch the Queen’s speech but know it will be a lightning rod for another argument. The carols on the radio broadcast peace on earth and goodwill to all men — and yet Christmas is a battleground: religion, politics, family relationships, all lubricated with a glass or three of your favourite poison. The first week in January is the busiest week of the year for divorce lawyers. No wonder people fear Christmas as much as they love it.
There are, roughly speaking, two camps when it comes to family disagreements — those in the truth party and those in the peace party. The truth party believes that honesty is the best policy — even if that means upsetting people. The peace party believes that domestic harmony trumps demonstrative displays of opinion sharing — even if that means biting your tongue and not calling things out.
The truth party argues that real peace can only be built on truth, so they say it as they see it. They believe the family peacekeepers are infuriating cowards, preferring the quiet life even if that means enabling foolishness or prejudice by refusing to condemn it. More persuasively, the truth party insists that conflict is a way for people to understand each other, a means of human contact. And indeed, there is something deathly dull about people constantly being nice to each other, skirting round their differences. For many in my family, arguing with one another is how we show our love for each other.
The peace party, however, sees little merit in calling people out when this only leads to rancour and acrimony. Surely a part of what we expect of truth — part of its promise — is that it has a fundamentally uniting quality, that it brings us together around a reality that we all have in common? If it fails at this, why do we even want it so? And what’s more, isn’t what you call truth just another expression of your boorish self-assertion? You call it the truth or the search for truth, but that is just to honour your petty argumentativeness with some comically grand description. The word truth is an alibi for the family bully.
The peace party and the truth party would seem to be fundamental philosophical enemies.
Edmund Burke was interesting on the subject: “Perhaps truth may be better than peace. But as we have scarcely ever the same certainty in the one that we have in the other, I would, unless the truth is evident indeed, hold fast to peace, which has in her company charity, the highest of virtues.” In other words, given that truth and opinion are so commonly confused, better go with harmony which is easier to recognise.
The problem here is that peace is not always as easy to recognise as Burke suspects. The difference between a family that puts on a show and buries its differences and one that agrees to give Brexit a break, and talk about something else for a while may not be all that easy to spot at first. Peace is not just the absence of battle, or the noise of battle. Harmony cannot be secure when premised on the quiet of lies and deceptions. That’s just as destructive as too much fighting.
But what if it’s all these military terms that are not helping: winning the argument, peacekeepers etc. The assumption of social media seems to be that truth is a combat sport. But often, when people are serious about it, that’s not what’s it’s like at all. Those who work in laboratories to find the next vaccine for Covid are not endlessly scrapping with each other. One of the most beautiful things about the scientific method is that it enables truth seeking to be a collaborative exercise. And though with many of the things we argue about there isn’t an agreed standard of reference, the idea that truth-seeking could be a communal exercise offers a welcome contrast to that lone ranger Mr Valiant-for-Truth opinion columnist approach.
Here a broadly Jewish Talmudic approach has much to recommend it. On the pages of the Talmud — on the very same page, in fact — different opinions co-exist in a work of corporate collective genius. And part of its beauty is that different takes on things are not seen as destructive or peace-threatening, rather they are a part of the whole conversation of faith, united yet questing. Argument here isn’t about ego or individual self-assertion. To know the truth is to see things from multiple perspectives. And only when peacefully present to each other can such argument take place. Truth requires peace just as much as peace requires truth. Far from being philosophical enemies, the peace party and the truth party cannot get anywhere without each other.
This may have taken us far from the Christmas table. But in essence, the point is just as relevant. We have come together to eat with these people for a reason. Family or friends, we have a bond. And only when we acknowledge what we have in common can argumentative truth-seeking work to enrich us all, rather than descend into tiresome and vexations point scoring or virtue signalling.
A shared table, at which everyone has a place, is the most democratic and precious of spaces for understanding each other. Here, you don’t always have to be right, you don’t have to be the cleverest. If you are of the truth party, put down your weapons, leave social media aside: this is where we can — and sometimes do — listen to one another. If you are of the peace party, don’t crush the conversation. Life is conversation, and conversation is often contestation. Listen to the bubble of noise, rising and falling and be thankful.
Yes, there may be a few tears. And your self-righteous daughter probably won’t say a word to your pompous uncle. But at least they ate together. Just as people who can’t stand each other can still pray together. You won’t sort out your differences over Brexit either. But thank God that we are all still here, remember those less fortunate, and raise a glass to those who we love and see no longer.