Trust is a complicated thing, especially in the United States. In many respects, our nation was formed at its outset within an overarching context of mistrust. 17th and 18th Century immigrants traveled to the new American colonies for any number of reasons. And with many motivations. Some political. Some economic. Some religious. Yet the very act of coming here demanded one thing above all else: a strong, abiding sense of self-reliance. The American experiment was a frontier-like experience for most. One’s courage and ability to follow their own path and instincts were often imperative for survival. Not surprisingly, this individualized independent spirit evolved into a more generalized, collective distrust of our colonies’ governing country, Great Britain. The English King’s policies on taxation, representation, trade, and the stationing of military troops fanned fires of anger toward our European colonizer. Many Americans, who would have otherwise agreed on very little else, unified in their resistance. This led directly to the ensuring Revolutionary War in the 18th Century. And to our ultimate independence. So, in many ways, we are a nation historically grounded in a level of mutual mistrust.
Mistrust in Action
This is our country’s birthright. And, in many ways, the tensions surrounding trust have served us well. Suspicions around unlimited governmental power helped to shape our nation’s Constitution. Our doctrine of Separation of Powers meant that no single branch of government would ever exercise sole power. The Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches were purposely created to balance each other out. Our Bill of Rights delineated specific, enumerated protections against unjust or improper restrictions on our individual freedoms. In our Republic, states were given primary responsibilities to manage their own affairs— limiting the power of the federal government except in ways specifically delineated in our founding documents. In all these things, we purposefully protected ourselves against infringement by those we didn’t entirely trust. And here we are today. Our country still suffers from distrust. Perhaps more viscerally so than ever before in our history. Many of us don’t trust our government or our fellow citizens to do the right thing, even while we ask others to trust our own intentions. We’re caught in an intensely troubling dilemma. Ancient 6th Century BC Chinese philosopher and Taoist founder Lao Tzu said it well:
“He who does not trust enough will not be trusted.”
Simply put, we can’t ask for widespread trust from others when we refuse to more fully trust those around us. Especially when we insist on going it alone or surrounding ourselves with only those who already align with our current beliefs, values, or restrictive versions of truth.
Our response to the current Covid-19 pandemic is instructive regarding our growing national mistrust. At a time when we urgently need widespread Covid-19 vaccinations of all Americans, millions of our citizens don’t trust its safety or efficacy. Recent Pew Research Center survey data indicates that the majority of U.S. survey respondents (approximately 60%) state that they will definitely or probably get one of the approved Covid-19 vaccines when they become more widely available. Trust in the vaccine has increased fairly significantly from last year when news of its pending availability was first announced. Yet, this also means that up to 40% of our population remains fully or partially skeptical about it at this time. 2-in-10 Americans are firmly opposed to getting vaccinated against the Coronavirus and aren’t likely to reconsider their position. Interestingly enough, many frontline healthcare workers are also resistant to receiving the vaccine, despite the traumatic loss of life they are bravely battling against each day on the front lines. Inoculation push back is also coming from communities of color in our country, where suspicions about the vaccine are running disproportionately higher than in other communities— even though African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans are far more likely to be hospitalized and die from Coronavirus. Such suspicions are deeply rooted in decades of discrimination, marginalization, historical medical abuse, and restricted access to the healthcare system. These communities may not distrust the vaccine, itself. Rather, they distrust the government and the health care institutions that are administering it.
Our distrust is not limited to Covid-19 vaccines. Americans are far more generally mistrustful overall these days. Pew Research Center survey data indicates that approximately two-thirds of our general population does not trust our federal government. Over 50% of us don’t trust our fellow citizens either. Strong majorities of survey participants believe that we must improve our confidence levels in government and in our fellow citizens as a high priority for the good of our nation. These statistics are quite troubling, especially at a time when we’re actually witnessing this mistrust play out so dramatically in our politics, economy, healthcare, culture, and religions. Increasingly, we don’t feel that those around us hold our best interests and welfare at heart. Homogenous, divisive factions have arisen in response, with rigidly drawn lines around in-group and out-group ‘membership’. Mistrust has created a self-fulfilling prophesy where apparent slights usually escalate into even deeper suspicion, mistrust, conflict escalation, retaliation, and further isolation. And thus the cycle continues.
Appropriate Trust Boundaries
The dictionary defines the term ‘trust’ as a firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something. By its very nature, the act of trusting another means that we place confidence in that person, organization, or institution. It implies a level of vulnerability or dependence on our part relative to someone or something external to ourselves. And, in turn, an abiding hope in the possibility of resulting positive outcomes. Only we can decide on whether to extend trust or not. No one can force it on us. And it’s a dynamic concept. For it can be given, moderated, and even removed based on changing circumstances. It’s therefore rarely an unconditional, universal kind of thing for everyone at all times.
Some mistrust is actually healthy, I suppose. Because, to a certain extent, there are people who make it their business to abuse, prey on, and exploit our trust. Sometimes even within our closest circles of families, neighbors, and friends. Unfortunately, shattered expectations are a fact of life. Given this, we need to exercise ongoing discernment in order to assess the trustworthiness of others. Then continue to be watchful to ensure that such trustworthiness continues. People and institutions in which we place our trust must demonstrate their integrity through their ongoing reliability and dependability. They need to communicate authentically and transparently with us. Trust in others is also grounded in the effectiveness of effort and outcomes to some extent. People must actually deliver on the commitments or promises they’ve made to us. Finally, those in whom we trust must be committed to fairness in our relationship. If the other person’s commitment is solely to his or her own self-interests (and not mine, as well), I have legitimate reasons to hold back some trust.
So, insisting on reasonably accountable human behavior from a person who wants our trust isn’t inherently a bad thing. Nor is expecting trust to be re-earned to some degree when it’s been violated by another. What is problematic, however, is a blanket, dysfunctional, and categorical mistrust extended more broadly to vast segments of our fellow individual citizens. Our wholesale and generalized distrust in government as a whole is also a problem. Because, when we build life’s foundation on a bedrock of pervasive mistrust, normal discernment becomes hyper-vigilance. Relational boundaries become battle lines. Normal trust impediments become impenetrable walls. And we have plenty of that going on these days in our country. It’s dragging us down. So, how do we address this trust erosion in an effort to build greater societal cohesion? How do we move from Trust Barriers to Trust Bridges?
I would submit that building greater trust amongst us must be grounded in Collaborative Truth-Seeking. And this is sorely missing in society right now. Our country is awash in disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories. We see this acted out every day via social media outlets, political parties, and even governments. Pervasive disinformation is efficiently and systematically influencing public opinions, encouraging dissent, discrediting facts, and disrupting our ability to self-govern as a nation in a peaceful, cooperative, and orderly manner. And, as a result, our confidence and trust levels have dramatically deteriorated. In the face of these dangerous developments, it’s logical to assert that curbing disinformation should be the primary goal in restoring trust. But, while it’s a good first step, it should not be the main objective here. For the absence of (or reduction in) something negative is not the same thing as the presence of something positive. We need to focus on the latter. Doing so will require that we move as a society from Belief to Reason. It’s difficult to seek truth when it is based principally on belief. And that’s exacerbated when this belief becomes intractable, narrow, exclusive, and overly passionate. For we know that when this happens, facts and data are selectively filtered in ways that tend to support the existing belief, itself. We end up incorporating those facts that buttress our beliefs, while simultaneously discarding those that do not. It’s all quite toxic.
In order to restore trust, we must pursue collaborative truth-seeking as an inherently good thing in and of itself– not solely as a means of supporting our various beliefs. This starts with a heightened ability to stand back and simply observe. To resist the urge to impatiently value or judge that which is observed. We accomplish this by asking questions rather than making assessments. Important, open, and truly curious questions like ‘What is happening here? How? Where? Why?’ In addressing our questions, we must also become better researchers. We need to seek out more objective ‘reporting’ on matters of importance. We must proactively search for differing viewpoints to broaden our existing perspectives in combating our own biases. Then stress-test our findings in respectful, constructive conversations with others. Preferably with those whose point of view varies from our own. Finally, our positions must be framed as ongoing hypotheses rather than conclusions. We need to stay in a space of openness as to how changes in our external environment can change the basis for our hypotheses and our level of confidence in the ‘truth’ of our positions. Throughout this entire process, we must remember one important thing: truth is nuanced, complex, and contextual in nature. No one holds it exclusively. Our preferred ‘truth’ destination is actually the shared journey of collaboratively seeking it, not the actual truths discovered as a result.
In order to effectively seek truth together, though, we must first strive to Understand Each Other as people. Human understanding is rooted in a number of things. It demands that we enter into the truth-seeking process with abiding humility. Further, we must commit to respectfully and openly listening to each other at every step of the way. Listening is an act of reverently acknowledging the value of another person. Not just the person’s opinions. But the person him or herself. Of course, we can never fully and completely understand one another. For each of us is unique in our composition, character, context, background, and how we approach the truths that we hold. But the act of trying to understand is paramount, nonetheless. Because our earnest efforts signal that the other person truly matters to us. That we’re genuinely interested in him or her. That we’re willing to enter into their space and life in order to join them. And willing to be vulnerable in the process of so doing.
When we strive for understanding, we’re giving something of ourselves to others. We’re relinquishing a degree of our autonomy to them. And, in turn, signaling something most important of all: that seeking common truths in life is not a zero-sum game. It’s not a single, static-sized ‘truth pie’ that is divvied up by the slice according to our respective, hardened, and disparate views. Instead, it’s a banquet table. One that expands, grows, and becomes something greater than it is now. This, of course, doesn’t mean that we’re all free to make up our own separate versions of truth around the table. Rather, it requires that we strive to discover what is true, right and just more purposefully and collaboratively at the table itself. Seated not across from each other while we talk at each other. But sitting next to each other while talking with one another. Nurtured by a deeper, more authentic mutual understanding. A renewed and unwavering commitment to join each other around a common ‘meal’ can help to remove the barrier walls that keep us at separate tables these days. Can allow us to join in freer, more trusting relationships in all spheres of our lives. Just think about the possibilities embedded in this notion. It represents an enormously hopeful and welcome opportunity for change within our nation. Especially given the many daunting challenges that we face together as Americans. And, by the way, you can Trust Me on that…