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How To Understand The Breakdown Of Civil Discourse

People have trouble understanding each other.

When people identify with a certain group, and need to understand the opposing point of view, often an intermediary is required.

The intermediary, who understands both sides, has a critical social function, is not reducible to a diplomat or a mediator.

  • The diplomat's function is to work with people regardless of whether they truly understand their culture or not. 
  • The mediator's job is to bring two opposing sides to some sort of consensus agreement, even if each will never be able to fathom what makes the other one tick.
In contrast to both of the above, the intermediary creates empathy between the two sides. They do this by providing insight into what makes each one tick, speaking in the native language of the audience.



In the professional world, an intermediary may have any number of job titles. But all of them act as some sort of liaison. 

The liaison comes from both Group A and Group B. This gives them substantial knowledge, footing and credibility in each one, and the ability to translate between one and the other.

Because the liaison is fluent in two languages, so to speak, he or she almost automatically synthesizes between the two and creates a higher level of understanding in their mind.

The liaison is skilled at doing this because of the inherent human need to live in a cohesive manner, not in a way that artificially divides one portion of life from another.

Mechanically the process of translation occurs when the liaison takes elements of the two sides, puts them together mentally, then re-translates back down to each group.

As they do so, they speak fluently in the language that is unique to that specific audience.


An obvious example is parent and child. They come from two different generations and lack shared cultural references. They have diametrically opposing goals, of course; the one seeks to protect while the other struggles for independence.

When I was growing up in the '70s, we used to call this "the Generation Gap." (Now it's not so fashionable to use this term because parents can't admit they're getting old.)

In order to effectively bring a child into society, we as a society employ many organizations to immerse themselves in the world of children so that adult messages about values, responsibility, and so on can be conveyed to children in an indirect, seemingly impartial way that draws on the unique language and attitudes of a youth population. 




There is no further need to belabor this point: For society to function effectively, we need people who speak multiple languages and can weave them into a single whole, or at least a patchwork quilt to keep us warm.

The problem today, at least in American society, is that we lack individuals who are ready, willing and able to translate between deeply divergent perspectives.

The media used to fulfill this function, but it has stopped, and the alternative media is inadequate.

If we are to resume functioning as a stable society, we need to rebuild the liaison function, preferably within the media but also throughout our social institutions.

It's not just about "getting along" with each other, but also about weathering the many challenges we face, now and in the future.

As President Abraham Lincoln famously said, "A house divided itself cannot stand."

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All opinions my own.

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All opinions my own. Originally posted to Quora. Public domain photo by hbieser via Pixabay.