Understanding systems of trust – the key to societal renewal

ashthrushsmMy post last week ‘The erosion of trust’ made me aware that our society does not yet really get what trust is and why it is so important. This week I have put up some general characteristics of systems of trust to try to kick off some conversation about this.

Three key propositions

  1. Human society can be understood as a set of overlapping systems of trust.
  2. A society with well-designed systems of trust, whose citizens are largely people of good character, will be optimally efficient, creative and benevolent.
  3. Analysis of any system of co-operation in terms of trust can expose previously unexamined facets of well-worn conversations leading to an extraordinary enrichment of human potential.

Explanatory notes:

overlapping systems of trust – example systems include democracy, economy and family. Each system is a means of human co-operation that depends on most people, most of the time, participating freely without recourse to rules and law or other coercive means.

well-designed- every co-operative system needs to take account of the few participants, who might choose to free ride or otherwise abuse the system. The confidence of the many to participate in the system will depend on the effective restraint of the free riders. Example abusers of systems would be presidents who refuse to accept accountability, family members who cheat on each other and corrupt businesses who practice bribery.

people of good character – every system of co-operation needs most people within it to have a settled disposition towards trustworthiness. This can be strengthened by institutions that build empathic sensitivity and moral responsibility. Those who lie, cheat, engender fear or pursue selfish greed are antagonistic to a good society and need effective restraint.

efficient- frequent recourse to rules or the law in a system is highly inefficient. Such bureaucratic entanglement happens wherever the participants have a marked tendency to free ride or abuse the system, or when they are perceived to do this. By contrast, trust, where it can be made to work, is very efficient.

creative and benevolent – well-designed systems of trust create the maximum space for individual creative expression, can embrace difference and tend towards an increase in kind-heartedness and empathy as people learn to appreciate one another.

expose previously unexamined facets of well-worn conversations –  our news repeats itself with the same tired language and thought forms, many of which have derived from the so-called Enlightenment when we believed that reason could solve all our problems. This history of pseudo-rationalism in the West has led to a denigration of all that derives from the world of our feelings. Trust develops as a manifestation of the world of feelings, but has enormous societal implications and could cast light on many of the problems that humanity is currently wrestling with.

In the following weeks I hope to demonstrate how this sort of analysis can cast light on some of our current problems.

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

Slow news is the answer to a global bully

langleypondsmAs Donald Trump is inaugurated this week, we might do well to reflect on what sort of a person is being appointed to the US presidency. His behaviour is typical of the bully. He holds his audience in thrall by making brash and boastful statements about his power. He is going to make America great again. He will build a wall. He will sort it out. He will fix it. Anyone opposing him is belittled, not on the basis of their argument, but their power. Power is the only language a bully understands. They are failing or a failure. They are over-rated. Likewise, threats are made. Lock her up. And then threats are undone. I did not mean that. That is no longer my priority. It will be a fence. The important thing for the bully is not constancy, integrity or trust, but to keep people guessing, hanging on your every word.

And there is an antidote to this. It is to be more considered about life, not firing from the hip but becoming more reflective.

Nicholas Carr in this book The Shallows showed how the real danger of our internet age was that we would live life on the surface without adequate in depth consideration. The Trump phenomenon shows that his warnings appear to be absolutely on the button. So many of us are now news junkies, sampling news in one form or another, throughout each day. And such habits are fed by the shock/horror newsfeed dripping from Trump’s twitter finger.

Those who are familiar with this blog site will know that I am convinced of the need for a deeper reflection on society. It is only as we hold in our minds and our hearts the big challenges of humanity in terms of our unbridled economic system and our destruction of the earth that we will put in place effective strategies in response.

Ministers and the media are actively thinking how to counteract fake news. The BBC are going to beef up their fact check facilities and they BBC have noticed the need for ‘slow news’, working up more big picture coverage in historical context. (Guardian 12 BBC sets up team to debunk fake news – Jan Jasper Jackson)

One of the interesting products of such a development would be that slow news would, to some degree, limit the impact of the bully. No longer would we ‘hang’ on their words. Instead we would look for consistency and truth in their pronouncements. This would surely be a good thing.

Chris Sunderland
Author of Rise up with Wings like Eagles  published by Earth Books December 2016.

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