Marvin Rees
Mayor of Bristol

To understand what a civilised society is, we must understand what the word ‘civil’ has come to mean. We often use ‘civil’ when we are referring to behaving respectfully towards one another, even when we disagree. I think being civilised is therefore recognising someone’s humanity even when there is obvious and disagreeable difference. A civilised society is one that learns to live with difference, even embraces it.

Bristol is a good example of a community made of different communities. Our city is home to a population of 460,000; people with 180 countries of origin; 91 languages; 45 religions. We are defined by our differences and our willingness to work together to tackle the interconnected social challenges we face.

It’s not always easy. I grew up mixed race in Bristol in the 1970s, where my primary carers were white and the closest people to us growing up were white kids. I have always had to live with difference. There does not need to be a debate about whether difference matters – of course it does. Difference affects our experiences, but it doesn’t dictate our humanity and shouldn’t dictate the level of respect we give to others. The difference that we all contain in our identities, whether that be race, class or gender, is easier to navigate in a civilised world.

Politics is a forum through which we relate despite our difference. It is how we communicate with and about each other and the world around us. The very nature of politics means we often disagree, but we should all share the common ambition for constructive and civilised debate. Too often the easiest political attack is personal and doesn’t reflect the complexity of an issue. Those of us in the public sphere have a responsibility to challenge this and elevate the quality of debate, but so too do individuals who continue to engage and fuel uncivilised narratives. We are all responsible for creating civilised politics. If communication channels such as politics are distorted, they make hostility more likely and both human connectivity and civility less likely.

There is a tendency to think that with the passage of time and progression of technology, we are becoming increasingly civil. I do not think this is true. Civility isn’t an inevitability; it only exists if it is pursued with intention. This includes in how we communicate, how we interpret, and how we relate. Technology can enable more sophisticated, effective, and subtle methods of barbarism on larger scales. We continue to see politicians and public discourse serving binary hostility for attention and clicks. As Martin Luther King said, people of ill will often use time much more effectively than those of good will. For a society to become and continue to be civilised, the people within it must consciously strive to respect difference in every interaction.

Marvin Rees – Mayor of Bristol