I have always found many of my political and personal views to be at odds with those of family. Over the years, I’ve tried to challenge them gently about issues such as homophobia and sexism when they have arisen, while also trying to look beyond their abhorrent opinions for the sake of maintaining good relationships.
Recently, I have been increasingly outraged and disgusted by comments and social media posts by family members, including my mother. This came to a head in a phone conversation with her about Black Lives Matter, during which my mother made racist and xenophobic remarks. I challenged her, and when she became dismissive, I continued to point out the errors in her statements. She grew angry and hung up. She then blocked me on social media and refused to speak to my husband when he called about an unrelated matter.
I am at a loss as to where to go from here. My husband feels I went too far and need to accept that she has some undesirable points of view, but is generally a good person who just believes what she reads in the rightwing press. I feel I cannot in good conscience talk to my small children about having the courage to speak out when we see something happening that is wrong, if I am not able to do so myself.
My mum raised me to be kind, not to judge a book by its cover and to try to consider other points of view. I feel torn and confused by the change in her moral code and by my own inability to apply these teachings to our situation. It would be disingenuous of me to reach out to my mum and apologise, but we will otherwise remain at stalemate.
It is incredibly difficult to have family members who hold views that are different and that you find morally wrong. But few have changed another person’s point of view by making them feel defensive. When defending, we stop listening and our rational brains disengage.
I contacted psychotherapist Dwight Turner (psychotherapy.org.uk) about your letter. “I get what you were trying to do,” explained Turner, “but you were setting yourself up for a row. In telling someone they can’t have those views, they get pushed under the carpet (remember, they don’t go away). You can’t change someone’s views – only they can. You need to set the example of what you would like your mother to be: accept she has different views and start a discussion with her.”
I understand how hard it is. The more important the subject, the more forceful we feel we need to be to counteract it. Sadly, it often has the opposite effect, simply entrenching the other person’s view.
Turner advised: “Be interested in where your mother’s prejudices have come from. Are they driven by what she’s reading or seeing on TV? Your husband made this point. Did she grow up around minorities? If you try to engage with her position, you don’t have to give up your own. But if you can find an empathetic bridge, then you can try to better understand her point of view.”
By doing this, you don’t become racist or homophobic yourself. In fact, you’re modelling what you want your mother to do: engage in a discourse. This is also what you’ll be teaching your children: not that you tolerate racism, but that you can discuss it. By just saying to someone, for example, “Your views are racist and you’re wrong”, you’ve done the right thing – but have you changed anything? (This is very different from challenging bigoted behaviour that you may see in other situations: where it’s aimed at someone else, stepping in is the right course of action. What we’re talking about here are these views in a family setting.)
If you could try to work out what your mother is afraid of – and fear will be at the root of it – you have a better chance of presenting her with more information that may make her reconsider. “This is not an end-of-relationship scenario with your mother,” said Turner. “You don’t have to discuss it, but if you do, you need to find common ground. You might want to start by saying that you miss your mum – hopefully, that may open the door to a conversation.”
That’s where tolerating, and later accepting, differences starts. Don’t go into the conversation wanting to be right, but neither should you apologise. By showing her you are prepared to listen, you may teach her to do the same.
• Send your problem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.
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