2021-04-07

Trust, part 1


“Do you trust me?” says Aladdin, as he holds out his hand to Jasmine.

What would you do? It happens twice in the 1992 Disney cartoon movie. The first time, he’s a street urchin, and she’s in disguise as a commoner. The second time, he’s in disguise as a prince and she’s in her element as a princess in the palace. Neither time does she have any reason to trust him. But she says yes – and takes his hand. Both times.

It’s a risk. She might get let down, hurt – maybe killed if she falls off that magic carpet when it takes a swerve. She takes the risk. Why? We don’t know. I don’t think she knows.

Trust. Sissela Bok says:
“Whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives.”
Jasmine’s world has been trustworthy enough that she feels she can trust a stranger – take that leap. And because she can – well, “a whole new world” opens up for her -- and for Aladdin.

I want to note that Jasmine’s trust is not a virtue she has. If we said that, then we’d have to say that if she’d said “no,” she’d be lacking some virtue. But no. If she’d said, “no, I don’t trust you, I am not taking your hand” there’d be no basis for finding any fault. Jasmine’s trust is not a virtue of Jasmine, but it is a virtue of the conditions in which she grew up that those conditions have taught her that trusting strangers is a risk she can sometimes take. The conditions of her upbringing taught her that she can trust herself. As the saying goes:
“A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because her trust is not in the branch but in her own wings.”
Because of that combination of trust in herself and just-high-enough willingness to trust strangers, she answers yes. Takes his hand, takes the leap.

Trust is a virtue of social systems, not of individuals – as opposed to trustworthiness, which IS a virtue of individuals. It’s your responsibility to be trustworthy, but it’s not your responsibility to trust. Trust may come to you as a grace, but don’t force it. If you don’t trust some situation, then trust your mistrust and back away.

Trust is a collective rather than an individual virtue. Trust is built – if it is built -- collectively. “In a restaurant I trust you to serve untainted fish and you trust me not to skip out on the bill. Social trust is a generalized faith in the people of your community” (Brooks) – that most people will do what they ought to do most of the time. Not everybody. Maybe not anybody all the time. But most people, most of the time.

Some level of shared norms – general agreement on what counts as “what one ought to do” – is necessary. “If two lanes of traffic are merging into one, the drivers in each lane are supposed to take turns. If [one] butts in line, [others] honk indignantly. [They] want to enforce the small fairness rules that make our society function smoothly" (Brooks).

Francis Fukayama’s 1995 book, Trust, coined the phrase "spontaneous sociability." He said that where social trust is high, spontaneous sociability increases. We can spend less time and energy checking in other out, looking for signs of untrustworthiness – less time and energy guarding and protecting ourselves from being swindled – and can much more efficiently move into cooperating and helping each other out. Spontaneous sociability means that people are “able to organize more quickly, initiate action, and sacrifice for the common good.”

Increased trustworthiness, the individual virtue, helps. When more people have the virtue of being worthy of trust, that facilitates trusting. But that’s not enough. Social trust has been falling precipitously in this country, and it’s not clear that the institutions that are less trusted are any less trustworthy than ever.

Scammers prey on the elderly. Why is that? We tend to suppose, well, they don’t think as clearly and can’t follow how they’re being scammed. That’s often a factor. Another factor, though, is that they come from a generation that was much more trusting – a generation that, because of the amazing things they accomplished together through that trust, is called the greatest generation.

“In 1964, 77 percent of Americans said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing most or all of the time.” Then came Vietnam, and Watergate, which certainly undermined trust in government. And Reaganomics. Not just economic policies that said government isn’t here for you unless you’re rich, but a stream of rhetoric that said government is the problem. He had that line: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help." That one line may have done more harm than his policies. He turned people who trusted that their government actually could do a lot of very helpful things – which is to say, people who trusted their neighbors to be able to work together collectively through elected officials for the common good (which is what trust in government is) – into the butt of a joke.

“By 1994, only one in five Americans said they trusted government to do the right thing.” From 77 percent to 20 percent in 30 years. Even so, when phrased as a question of trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens, most people still affirmed that. In 1997, 64 percent of Americans had a great or good deal of trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens. “Then came the Iraq War and the financial crisis and the election of Donald Trump.” Today only a third of Americans say they trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens.

The distrust turned explosive. “Explosive distrust is not just an absence of trust or a sense of detached alienation—it is an aggressive animosity and an urge to destroy. Explosive distrust is the belief that those who disagree with you are not just wrong but illegitimate.”

It’s not that way everywhere. In Denmark and the Netherlands, trust has been growing. In Denmark, “about 75 percent say the people around them are trustworthy.” In the Netherlands, “two-thirds say so.” In the US, on the other hand, in 2014, only 30 percent of Americans agreed that “most people can be trusted.” That’s the lowest number since the survey started asking the question in 1972.

It becomes a vicious downward spiral: when we don’t trust each other, we don’t form or sustain networks that we can trust, and then trust falls further. When people believe they can’t trust others, that others aren’t trustworthy, they become less trustworthy themselves.

So our younger people, growing up under conditions of mistrust, have more mistrust. Forty percent of baby boomers say most people can be trusted. Only 31 percent of Generation X – born before 1980 – say most people can be trusted. For Millennials, born since 1981 – the proportion who say most people can be trusted drops to 19 percent.

We need to acknowledge that sometimes, in some ways, American social trust has been intermixed with delusion. “Only 35 percent of young people, versus 67 percent of old people, believe that Americans respect the rights of people who are not like them. Fewer than a third of Millennials say America is the greatest country in the world, compared to 64 percent of members of the Silent Generation.” Believing the US to be the greatest country in the world has always required highly selective measures of greatness – and on many measures we’ve been falling further and further behind. And the disconnect between how highly Americans thought of themselves for respecting the rights of people not like them, and how much they actually did respect those rights is only recently beginning to narrow.

So good for the younger generations for increasingly disavowing those delusions of grandeur. I get how the delusions fostered social trust. But delusions inevitably collapse. Sustainable, nondelusive social trust is possible, and maybe we’ll get there. In the meantime, it’s helpful to name the condition we’re currently in – name the water that, like a fish, we might not notice because we’re immersed in it. What we’re in the middle of right now doesn’t have to stay that way. Our country has been a place of trust – and might be again.

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