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The Erosion of Trust

bird of preyWhat is it that explains the changes that are sweeping through global politics? Is it a resurgent nationalism? Or a reaction against inequality? Are people fed up with political correctness or has the whole political establishment lost the respect of the people?

All these things are explanations of a sort, but none of them, in my view, really bottoms out the problem or gives us an adequate purchase on the necessary remedy. I think that the deepest and most powerful explanation of our current condition is that we are experiencing a breakdown of trust.

It is something of a tragedy that, at this point in time, very few of us appreciate the importance of trust in human society. Trust is the very basis of all co-operation, yet we do not understand how it is built or how it is maintained. And, for that reason, we do not recognise when it is being eroded.

Trust is expressed as our willingness to work together with others. It is the beating heart of every organisation, both political and otherwise, on the planet. Yet trust is a ‘feeling’ word. It is an inner disposition and it is also very fragile, taking years to build, yet capable of destruction in an instant. Feelings are not recognised as a mainstay of societies such as ours, which prides itself on being rational. We have been taught to rise above our ‘passions’ into the abstract world of rational thought. Only thereby, it was said, could we find solid foundations for our common life.

It was in keeping with such dogma that we created theories about economic exchange with promises that wealth would ‘trickle down’ to the poorest. Yet now we face the brute fact that just eight men control more wealth than the poorest half of the world’s population put together. It is hardly surprising then that our basic trust is being strained.

Evidence for the breakdown of trust is now all around us. It can be seen in the rising intolerance and suspicion of refugees, immigrants and minorities in general. In a healthy society a common empathy prevails, which can embrace the stranger and feels their humanity. But, as trust erodes, so fear rises and, with it comes a terrible tendency to dehumanise and scapegoat the ‘other’. It can also be seen in the erosion of respect for institutions and the ‘truth’ of their pronouncements. People become willing to disbelieve the evidence of science regarding climate change, for instance, and instead embrace conspiracy theories about scientific institutions. Likewise, they turn away from the political ‘establishment’ with a sense that it is failing, while proving all too willing to pin their hopes on a new powerful figure who promises to fix things.

These are the things that we are experiencing, are they not? Yet do we understand the challenge they represent? The challenge is nothing less than the rebuilding of a culture, which has to begin where all culture begins, with some honest storytelling and some hard listening.

This theme of cultural renewal will be continued in this blog.

More on the nature of society as a trust can be found in ‘Rise up with wings like eagles’ by Chris Sunderland, published by Earth Books 2016

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