What happened to civility? From debate to dispute in mediated public participation


In a relatively short time, from the heyday of monopoly public service media to the contemporary hybrid media system, Western democratic societies have shifted from a public culture in which relatively few people had the opportunity to express their views and engage in public discussion and debate to a proliferation of opportunities for mediated participation across multiple contexts. The mediation of public life has been transformed from a relatively organized affair to a situation where access is more open but to a disorganized space of expression, opinion, argument, conflict, and accusation. From limited voices to a cacophony of multiple voices, from restricted sites of public address to multiple sites of expression, from consensus to contestation, from deference to disputation and attack. How are we to make sense of this transformation in the mediated public discourse and how can we evaluate its potential and its problems?

To address the question of what happened to civility we can consider what social and cultural theories are relevant to this issue. We can also consider what concepts will guide our analysis of mediated public discussion, and what methods of analysis might best capture the nature of the interplay and engagement of multiple perspectives across different sites. The discussion ends with reflections on the nature and implications of contemporary mediated public debate and contestation and explores the implications for the quality of public life.