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In honor of the holidays, I’d like to take a look at what I’m going to call The Big Three – the three topics of conversation that everyone everywhere knows to avoid at social gatherings, holidays and especially family dinners:

Sex. Religion. Politics.

The Big Three can be, to put it mildly, divisive, and it’s for this reason that they are often studiously avoided in favor of weather-based small talk. They are naturally controversial – unless all of the conversationalists agree. If the majority of people in the room hold them same beliefs, then these issues are a wonderful way to bond and confirm one’s acceptance in the ideological fold. The ideology itself is secondary to re-affirming a sense of belonging; or, to put it another way, it is the conduit through which this re-affirmation is performed. This is a pretty universal phenomena – doesn’t matter if the ideology is conservatism, atheism, bisexuality or Catholic Pro-Choice Buddhist Libertarianism. But I digress…

The point is that, despite accepted wisdom, and in the face of violently clashing ideologies, tons of people dive right into The Big Three, especially during the holidays, family dinner be damned. And this is important, I think.

What makes us bring up gay marriage when we know Aunt Janice believes homosexuality is a sin? Why talk about The Diary of Anne Frank when we’ve heard Uncle Ed say that Hitler “took a good idea too far”? Is it a simple impulse to provoke? To get a reaction? Or is there something deeper at work? I believe that there is and I suspect it comes back to ideology, and the fact that most of the ideologies currently held by humans on this planet involve, in some way, sex, religion, or politics, is just a happy coincidence.

A note before I go on: I don’t oppose ideology. I’m full of ideologies, as are most human beings. To believe in something is, in fact, to be human, so I in no way fault humans for having beliefs. The trouble isn’t in the ideology, but in the inability to see past it, to the views of others.

Okay. As I was saying, I suspect that this impulse to engage The Big Three, particularly in contexts having to do with extended families, roasted meats and lots of alcohol, has to do with both the assertion of our own ideology, and the deep-rooted need to have that ideology ratified by non-believers. Or, to put is simply, to change Aunt Janice’s goddamned mind. This is clearly not going to happen because she feels the same way about you. But we have the impulse to try.

This impulse is important, because it’s an impulse to engage. While The Big Three can, and often do, lead to uncomfortable interactions, they also prompt engagement, rather than the blind ratification of long-held beliefs.

Sex, politics and religion. They provoke and challenge. Their divisiveness prompts the impulse to engage. That is where their potential lies, but their value lies in going one step farther, past simple engagement, to a place of thinking and of discourse, where we can allow our own ideologies to be challenged, even as we challenge the ideologies of others.