Listening in polarised controversies: a study of listening practices in the public sphere
Listening is an important feature of policy making and democratic politics. Yet in an era of increased polarisation the willingness and capacity of citizens to listen to each other, especially those they disagree with, is under strain. Drawing insights from a divisive community conflict over proposed coal seam gas development in regional Australia, this article examines how citizens listen to each other in a polarised controversy. The analysis identifies four different listening practices that citizens enact in a polarised public sphere, including (1) enclave listening between like-minded citizens; (2) alliance listening across different enclaves; (3) adversarial listening between citizens on opposing sides of the debate to monitor opponents; and (4) transformative listening where citizens listen selectively to other community members with the intention of changing their views. The article argues that all four listening practices fulfil important democratic functions in polarised debates such as enhancing the connective, reflective and communicative capacity of the public sphere. Notwithstanding these democratic contributions, under polarised conditions participatory interventions may be required to enhance the prospects of listening across difference.
KeywordsListening Polarisation Democratic politics Community conflict Citizen engagement Unconventional gas Democracy Energy Public communication Political communication
For their comments and suggestions on the previous versions of this paper, we would like to thank John S. Drzyek, Gerry Stoker and participants at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, San Francisco, 29 August–1 September 2017. The research in this paper is funded by an Australian Research Council (ARC) Grant No. DP150103615.
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