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There’s nothing wrong with a festive fight It's possible to navigate arguments at Christmas

Credit: Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images

Credit: Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images


December 24, 2021   4 mins

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.

Happy Christmas.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago

Funny this article should come up. I just tried and failed to have a discussion last night. Or should I say, I was having a discussion with one person, quite cordially, when I was interrupted by a third who mentioned that I should not hold X, Y and Z views because I’m a white cis-gendered male, blah blah blah.
I gave some push back with why I believed Critical Race Theory (among other CTs) on which this lady’s views were based, conflated correlation with causation, not no mention being built on biological essentialism (ie itself racism).

After putting my case forward, she complained that I was ‘weaponising logic’ and “intellectualising” race and gender, while she, in contrast, “lived these issues as her reality”.

So, in short, as appears to be typical, such ideologues advance what they believe is an “intellectual” position. When you then respond in kind with your own counter position to this “intellectualism”, they then respond by falling back on their “lived experience” card. Criticism of their point of view is taken as proof that their point of view is correct in an extraordinary circular way.

I was told that we needed to have this “difficult conversation”, but every time she (and others) have said this, I have instead got the impression that what they really mean is that I must comply with their world view or they’ll cut me out of their lives.
Here’s hoping the rest of my “difficult Christmas conversations” go better than this last one did.

Last edited 2 years ago by hayden eastwood
Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

Sounds like cutting them out of your life would be the wise position.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

it has got to the sad state of affairs where many once strong friendships are cracking under the strain of the culture wars. People who once saw me as a human being now see me as a blind instantiation of an enemy group, holding views to advance the power of that group at their personal expense. Bringing a child up in this kind of environment leaves me feeling rather cold.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

It’s even worse when it’s family. Finding them seeing you as “as a blind instantiation of an enemy group” is bad enough. Realising that the vitriol is returned is a horrifying self reflection.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago

I presume this is a US experience. I would regard anyone who placed any general significance on anyone’s skin colour as mentally unbalanced. Lived experience is simply something filtered through one’s own biased lense. Fortunately, I can’t remember any Christmas gathering I have been at where the issue has arisen. I suppose if I had I would not engage with them just as you would seek to humour any lunatic suffering from some monomania.
We have had a couple we are friendly with from Nigeria round for New Year’s Eve for a number of years. She is a social worker so I presume is surrounded by colleagues who have been indoctrinated with CRT but the subject has never come up. They seem perfectly sane on subjects that we have discussed so I just presume as a Nigerian she is unlikely to be taken in by this US originated lunacy that appears to be creeping in over here. Although my sons are at University they seem untainted by the madness.
While I think CRT teaching should be banned in UK institutions I have not come across any adherents socially and would be disinclined to attempt to alter such a bigot’s views in a social setting if I did.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

She’s clearly just a racist. Tell her to do one.
Also, I have a rule in my household that guests, lodgers, and lodgers’ guests are not allowed to interrupt me when I’m speaking.

Last edited 2 years ago by Drahcir Nevarc
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

I love this rule. I am going to type it out, laminate it and stick it on the door.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
2 years ago

When you get trapped in the circular fallback of ‘lived experience’, try pointing out that it’s unfalsifiable. At first she will think that unfalsifiability proves her ideology (as all ideologues do) but you can then point out that the only way a theory can be validated is to hunt for exceptions to its explanatory value and try to account for them. The exceptions will either be accountable or they will disprove the theory. If she wants a sound theory, she needs to provide answers to its apparent holes. If she is unwilling she has to accept she’s not interested in truth finding, but only in blind feeling. She also needs to understand that apparent unfalsifiability isn’t an asset but a great big red flag.

Last edited 2 years ago by Judy Englander
hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

Judy you are essentially repeating verbatim what I said to her, at which point she claimed that my reasoning, rooted in patriarchal racial supremacist thinking, was itself oppressive, thereby making it invalid as a mode of rebuttal.

Of course, being an adherent of CRT, the only thing that mattered in her eyes was who was making the argument, not what the argument contained.
And, she was, no less, a graduate of Oxford.

Last edited 2 years ago by hayden eastwood
Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

Per below, my own experience was also at the hands of an Oxford grad. I wonder if it’s something they catch there.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

“She also needs to understand that apparent unfalsifiability isn’t an asset but a great big red flag.”

This is essentially impossible for any person inclined to think in such a way in the first place.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
2 years ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Yes, challenging for many first year undergraduates (I remember the hunt for complete explanations well) but they should be trained how to think before they even consider having an opinion. Unfortunately that approach appears to be long gone as they don’t believe it’s possible to adopt a critical standpoint outside the accident of birth. For them, being critical means starting with the premise that there is no universal reason, only the standpoints of the marginalised which should be used to upend the supposedly self-serving standpoints of the ‘privileged’. That’s what criticism is for them. As usual, a word has been hijacked to mean the opposite of its original definition: not checking your theory in a state of healthy doubt, but doubling down on ideology from a position of radical activism.

Last edited 2 years ago by Judy Englander
Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

I know this comment is a week old, but what I’ve noticed lately is that Critical Theory is often conflated with Critical Thinking by students. They believe that adhering to Critical Theory signifies intelligence and those who argue against it are stupid.

Mark Duffett
Mark Duffett
2 years ago

I would take ‘weaponising logic’ as a compliment.

Stuart Rose
Stuart Rose
2 years ago

I’d bet this is not the kind of person Giles would nudge you to go ahead and argue with— “Go ahead, have a go, you’ll both be enriched”.the presumption on her part of your bad faith makes the conversation pointless and painful. Why deal with all the heat if you’re sure there won’t be as much as a wobbly ray of light?
in general, anyone whose thinking is governed by an airtight ideology won’t be able to engage you(in all the senses of that word).

Last edited 2 years ago by Stuart Rose
Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

Were you in your own home being interrupted by a guest? If so, you should have told them to shut up when you were talking.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

I like the concept outlined in this article, but boy it’s not easy.

Like many on here I am occasionally a full on member of the truth party. Objectively, I can see how tiresome my convictions could be to others.

The problem is the objectivity. Having been accused of white fragility at my own dinner table, the effort to keep the visceral reaction under control was substantial and not something I want to keep repeating.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

“accused of white fragility at my own dinner table”
Any woke racist trying that on with me gets shown the door.

Kristof K
Kristof K
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

As I am at present able to judge you only by your contributions to UnHerd comments, I must say I would incline to agree with your dinner guest. Their lack of decorum, however, is unforgivable, whilst your self-restraint is to be thoroughly commended!

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago
Reply to  Kristof K

Interesting comment. I’m not really sure what white fragility is, other than a woke insult.

I’d be interested to know in what way I’ve exhibited the characteristics and indeed what they are.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Kristof K

Any accusation of white fragility shows that the accuser defaults to cheap name calling when unable to mount an adult discussion.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

Despite the difficulties, best wishes for Christmas to everyone.

Mark Vernon
Mark Vernon
2 years ago

“To know the truth is to see things from multiple perspectives.” The Talmudic insight is manifest in paradise too, according to Dante, who sees Christians, Jews, Muslims and others rejoicing together in the heavens – having disagreed on earth to the point of declaring each other burnable heretics, now realising their heartfelt differences were as many reflections of the one light that exceeds any one articulation. Happy Christmas.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

“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. ”

Not what I’ve heard actually. I was told that in certain parts of the UK research sector, different teams can often be on non-speaking terms with each other. This is entirely anecdotal of course, something confided to me over dinner one night by someone who works in research. But I have good reason to trust them, given their seniority and qualifications.

Anyway, I’m definitely one of the Truthers in this context as opposed to a peace-prioritiser, but not when it comes to family and Christmas. I learned this the hard way ever since 2016 being the only Brexit supporter in the family and after a couple of ruined Christmas dinners had a minor moment of clarity in realising that I could afford to ignore all the bullshit flying across the table for the simple reason that i was on the winning side where it actually counts.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
2 years ago
Reply to  John Riordan

“Non-speaking terms”. Isn’t that the modern way of Red and Blue teams working towards a common goal? If it’s happening ‘naturally’ then it can’t be all bad.

bryarsnick
bryarsnick
2 years ago

Oh for the innocent days of an argument about brexit rather than one about masks etc…

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago
Reply to  bryarsnick

True story. at my significant age birthday party pre Brexit, pre Covid, two of my oldest friends were sat at a table with another two couples, also my friends. Brexit got “discussed”, and ended up as fisticuffs. The meal was fraught, and they stalked around each other for the rest of the night.

George Glashan
George Glashan
2 years ago

Have a Merry Covidmas everyone and may Greta bless you all !

Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
2 years ago

Christmas conversations.
Active listening (while temporarily keeping your own mouth shut) – a lost art ? This is more than just saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in the right places and ‘could you please pass the bread sauce ?’
Active listening is hard because what you are hearing a good portion of the time, are people’s fears filtered through a very particular language / narrative / personal experience.
Absorbing other people’s anxieties is wearing and then attempting to craft a civilised, equable, discussable response requires a very particular type of cognitive effort. This is why, in the main, I have huge respect for professional counsellors and psychotherapists.
The Talmudic references I really chimed with. All people of the Jewish persuasion I have been fortunate enough to meet and get to know, seem to be fearless about asking questions – about anything. If there is one thing that will save the human race long term IMHO, it will be this flavour of insatiable curiosity.
Which brings me back to active listening – if you aren’t really interested in digging and delving into why the quasi-fascist uncle is so afraid of women and immigrants then …. you had better just pass the bread sauce.

Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
2 years ago

LoL ! that’s the best laugh I have had so far this Christmas – except I haven’t watched the colourised, re-discovered Morecombe and Wise yet ….
Seasons Greetings Julie – luuurve your incontinent, subversive tendencies !

Last edited 2 years ago by Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

It would seem that the great uncle and his grand-niece

don’t see eye to eye

So to maintain the peace

they say, Yes Please!


 to offerings of pudding and mince pies

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Last sentence: should be “whom”, surely.

Guy Pigache
Guy Pigache
2 years ago

You don’t see a lot of whom around these days.

Julie Blinde
Julie Blinde
2 years ago

Lol. Whence cometh thou ?

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

My married Christmas family lunches had one benefit… legging it down to my stables at 4 pm to prepare my horses for Boxing Day Hunting,… and then sneaking off to bed!

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Speak to my mother in law who gave me a huge, defiant shouting at, ate by herself and then went to bed.

Mel Bass
Mel Bass
2 years ago

Reminds me of why I prefer to work over Christmas! Somebody has to, but it gets me out of those hideous festive get-togethers, where everyone’s walking on eggshells.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
2 years ago

Great. My wife’s not talking to me, my daughter-in-law’s angry with me, my father-in-law’s disappointed because I left him out of a family social event, and my eldest granddaughter’s in tears because I didn’t get her a pressie. Happy Christmas.

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago

Simple. get a sign , writ large, that says “Be nice or leave” and stick to it. Give the offender a cheese sandwich to take home!

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
2 years ago

Don’t forget that, per Nazi Carl Schmitt, politics is the friend-enemy distinction. Or, as Curtis Yarvin writes, “there is no politics without an enemy.”
Thus the political struggle for justice is nothing more than a war against “them,” the enemy. Any political discussion comes down to the friend-enemy distinction.
For lordly types like you and me, politics is so vieux jeu. Old chap.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

From Seinfeld we get the holiday of Festivus

“The non-commercial holiday’s celebration, as depicted on Seinfeld, occurs on December 23 and includes a Festivus dinner, an unadorned aluminum Festivus pole, practices such as the Airing of Grievances and Feats of Strength, and the labeling of easily explainable events as Festivus miracles.”

Sounds like some posters tales – the airing of grievances part.

“Airing of grievancesThe “airing of grievances” takes place immediately after the Festivus dinner has been served. In the television episode, Frank Costanza began it with the phrase, “I got a lotta problems with you people, and now you’re going to hear about it!” It consists of each person lashing out at others and the world about how they have been disappointed in the past year”

“Feats of strengthThe “feats of strength” are the final tradition observed in the celebration of Festivus, celebrated immediately following (or in the case of “The Strike”, during) the Festivus dinner.[19] The head of the household selects one person at the Festivus celebration and challenges them to a wrestling match. Tradition states Festivus is not over until the head of the household has been pinned.”

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Festivus is one of my favourite celebrations.

John Tattersall
John Tattersall
2 years ago

Thank you Mr Fraser for a thoughtful piece for personal reflection.

GA Woolley
GA Woolley
2 years ago

‘Just as people who can’t stand each other can still pray together.’ Apart from at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, of course, where the Palestinian police are routinely called to deal with brawls between Christian sects fighting over who can pray where and when.  

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago
Reply to  GA Woolley

Maybe not quite so Christian then?

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago

Merry Christmas!