My father has views I consider hateful. We can't continue with things as they are | Leading questions

My father has political views that differ radically from my own and I’m afraid that our relationship has broken down somewhat as a result. I have decided that the only way forward is to avoid discussing anything even vaguely political with him. However he continues to bring these topics up at family gatherings, in defiance of a request I have previously made that we just keep politics out of it. Even if he doesn’t raise politics specifically, it appears that he cannot help making racist and/or sexist comments, and I don’t believe I should have to sit there quietly while he says such things.

He is a highly educated and intelligent man but has developed views that I consider to be hateful and anti-science. I am disgusted by some of the things he says and most recently have found myself telling him quite forcefully to stop talking whenever he goes down that path, which I know causes tension for everyone.

I fear that the only way forward is simply to avoid him, but I’d be making a big statement by doing that – we meet up regularly as a family. I don’t want to destroy my relationship with my father and stop seeing my family but we also cannot continue with things as they are.

Eleanor says: There are a lot of people in your position right now, and even more people are absolutely confident about what someone in your position should do. I’m sure you’ve spoken to friends and family about this and heard strident, contradictory things: “People need empathy, you won’t persuade him if you attack him”; “It’s capital-B Bad to not correct him!” Nowadays everyone’s a psychologist.

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Except actual psychologists (good ones, anyway) know that the problems of racist or anti-science beliefs don’t start and end at the limits of an individual’s skull. They are outputs of an ailing system of sociological narrative, media, money and history. One testament to the fact that we don’t really know how to fix this is that it keeps happening. We keep losing people to systems of belief that deny the very premises we try to use to bring them back; premises like “scientific evidence is admissible and persuasive”. Without those premises our tools of persuasion don’t work and arguing starts to feel like sword-fighting a fish.

This is why I’m glad your primary mission seems to be deciding what to do about the relationship, rather than trying to change his mind. If nothing else, you’ve saved yourself a lot of agony; argument seldom removes what did not not arrive by argument.

I think you should reissue the request to keep politics out of conversation. Try to give reasons that don’t boil off to the disagreement itself; avoid “I don’t want to talk about this because it’s wrong.” Try instead to appeal to reasons he’ll still recognise even though he thinks it’s right – things like “I’m your child and it upsets me to have these disagreements.”

Give him an “if” that his actions can affirm: if you want to stay close – and I do – we need to make a change. Then, every time he brings up politics, don’t join him there. Ascend to the meta-realm and parrot your request. You don’t need to be forceful or heated – in fact it’s better if you’re not. “Dad, I value this relationship, but I’ve said to you I just can’t have these conversations. Please can you listen to what I’m asking you.”

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Don’t get sucked into debating whether this “if-then” structure is fair. It’s a surprisingly effective behaviour-changer to stop negotiating and present yourself as an inert causal node. Just keep handing him the decision framework: if he wants to stay close, he needs to make a change.

That way you force him to make a choice, ideally in company – will he say “OK, truce” or will he shoosh you and blaze over you? If he really can’t honour your request then you won’t be the one to make the big relationship-severing statement – he will already have done that. That’s the point to emphasise to the family – not that his views were bad, but that you told him something was ruining your finite time with your only father and he decided that was a price worth paying.

You don’t have to agree on much to have a healthy relationship. But you have to both think the relationship is worth saving.


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