“And the more we have it, the more we dislike it in others.” – C.S. Lewis
About a month ago I received a Facebook event invite to something called a “Drunk-Uncle Free Thanksgiving.”
Now, if you’ve never watched Saturday Night Live, you should know that Drunk Uncle is the personal incarnation of every casual regressive, bitter, ignorant, racist/sexist/homophobic/xenophobic, and nationalist/authoritarian offhand remark you’ve ever heard at a Thanksgiving dinner table.
He’s a fun guy.
Bobby Moynihan played Drunk Uncle to the hilt, and his character has since come to be such a meme that people are now basing Facebook events around it.
Let me first say that I am grateful to have been invited. Who wouldn’t want a Thanksgiving free of facepalm-worthy comments and teeth-grindingly ignorant attitudes? I have no doubt that the intentions of the hosts were primarily positive: to give tired people a break from toxicity for Thanksgiving. This is a good and important thing.
There are a lot of people like me. And when I see an event like this, I can’t help but feel a smugness about those ignorant, regressive Drunk Uncles out in the world. And I can’t help but feel a smugness that I was invited to gather together in a gathering excluding those Drunk Uncles. I’m very pleased at the idea that I can ban prejudice and pride from Thanksgiving with my circle of enlightened friends.
I think you see the problem.
What makes Drunk Uncle so boorish is his complete inability to think and act outside of what is acceptable in his small echo chamber of opinion. Drunk Uncle doesn’t realize he is offensive and arrogant and dull because he’s smugly walled himself off from any evidence that he might have mistaken prejudices.
Of course, if I made a habit of walling off the people *I* consider to be Drunk Uncles from my life, I might not be so much better than a Drunk Uncle in training myself.
C.S. Lewis realized that pride was “essentially competitive”:
“…If you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, “How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronize me, or show off?” (emphasis mine) The point is that each person’s pride is in competition with everyone else’s pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise…”
I would say that the same is true of prejudice and moral blindness. Perhaps the more I savor the idea of a holiday free of Drunk Uncles, the more I can be sure there is a Drunk Uncle within me wanting dominance.
And make no mistake – there is a Drunk Uncle inside of us. It may take 40 years for the ugliness to really become visible, but it’s there. The prejudice and pride steering our public beliefs and attitudes now will pass from popularity before too long. Those of us who are progressive now will find ourselves shamed in a generation’s time.
For us to assume we can escape Drunk Uncles by mocking and excluding them is to welcome Drunk Uncle prejudice and pride with open arms.
So what’s the answer?
I don’t think it’s wrong to remove negative people from our lives. I think it’s important for us speak truthfully in relationships that presume too much. But I do think labelling out-groups (“Drunk Uncles”) and in-groups (“We enlightened, chill progressive people”) is a dangerous game. If freeing ourselves from Drunk Uncles makes us smug, we should be afraid that we’re already on our way down the Drunk Uncle path.
If we remember that we carry the same evil and the same weakness, perhaps we can show the grace and humility that will keep us far from that temptation.