Bristol has a long history of debate and dissent often delivered through a biting wit. We are a city that is simultaneously immensely proud and robust with itself. This includes a rich commitment to publicly debating every potential weakness of the city and those who rise to prominence within it.
This can be an asset. It speaks to the city’s authenticity and is a safeguard of our democracy. Bristol has harvested the fruits of this. It’s enabled it to carve out a niche in the nation as the city that does things differently. It’s enabled the city to avoid “group think”, driven creativity, innovation and political change. But there is a view that in some ways this great quality may have become so distorted that it now hurts the city. People have been racing back and forth on Twitter and the comments left beneath news articles.
This distortion is part cause and part consequence of the tendency in today’s culture to polarize and “other” those who hold a different goal or even those who share a goal but may differ in their view of how to get there. It is part cause and part consequence of the social media platforms that drive us toward short, single dimensional arguments of a complex world, feed addictions to faceless affirmations through “likes”, “retweets” and “reposts”. It reaches its height of toxicity when this culture and these means of communication become THE means of interaction between politicians, journalists and the public as journalists look for division and conflict, politicians serve up division and conflict, and the public are entertained by division and conflict.
Although politicians have come to expect a poor public reception, but we know that some political debate has reached new lows when threats of violence are commonplace. It would be bad enough if this remained in the political world. But I fear it doesn’t.
Over recent months a number of people from business, public sector, voluntary community sector, health, faith groups and the media have come together to share concerns with me about what they see as a deterioration in the tone, quality and as a consequence usefulness, of Bristol’s civic discourse. By civic discourse they mean the conversation the city has with itself about itself.
A doctor friend of mine runs a charity tackling phone (social media) addiction in young people. Poor mental health is a huge consequence. We were discussing the implications of the way we undertake our civic discourse for young people. The question we got to was this: to what extent does the example set and culture created by fifty odd year old keyboard warriors sitting around late at night writing mean things about people shape the way young people begin to communicate with each other? We struggled to see an upside. We concluded the consequences of the culture our young people are growing up with are real, with consequences that will resonate through the decades to come. It suggests to me that how we behave and disagree as city leaders, journalists, private citizens and commentators is as important an input into the lives of our young people as the houses we build, services we fund or campaign for. The ability to disagree well could be one of the most important gifts we give our children in what seems to be becoming an increasing fractured world.
A cartoon I was sent had a little boy sat at his computer about
to post in the comments. His father is standing next to him with furrowed brow saying:
“Son, if you’ve got nothing nasty to say then don’t say anything at all”
It’s an amusing cartoon, but the humour fades if we reflect on the possibility that this is actually what we have come to, that nastiness is the mode of communication we are making the norm for our young people.
Those who have come together have suggested we need a city debate. Let’s have a chat with ourselves about the way we chat about ourselves. In a school, in a workplace, in a home we can be intentional about reviewing our culture. I think we can and should do the same as a city. We can take a proactive approach to assessing the quality of the civic discourse we currently have. Let’s take a view on it. If we like what we have, then fine. If not, then we can think about what we would like and how we get there. I don’t think its beyond us as a city to do this.
Here is a suggestion: let’s take Lent to do this. 40 days. #BristolTalks.
Let me know what you think.