Trust or Distrust Drives Social Groups

Racial and ethnic divisions determine political alliances.

Part of the image comes from Trust Fall by Mugdha Damle from the Noun Project

I grew up with trust issues with my parents. My relationship was often strained. Their mood swings and quick turns to anger confused me and kept me on my toes. I feel I had difficulty relating to others later because of my childhood experiences. Now, years later, I am glad I could always count on their physical and material support. Trust defines how we live in the world.

We trust a bank to keep our money safe. We trust a school to educate our children. We trust police officers to carry weapons responsibly to protect us from out of control fellow citizens. We trust politicians to make wise decisions that make the world a safer place. I have a wife, family, and friends I trust. This vital part of our day-to-day lives reigns supreme in how we live, but we don’t talk about it much.

I suppose we don’t have clear definitions of what trust means. Trust is a label we assign to a multitude of concepts. There are certainly different types of trust, like interpersonal, social, political, religious, media, and others. Robert D. Putnam (2000) said the stock of social capital in the United States has been declining for years. Even without having a clear definition in my head, that rings true. Look around the media landscape in the US this year and tell me we don’t have a problem with our share trust in the system and our fellow citizens.

Trust is so important for our society, I call it the social lubrication. Niklas Luhmann (1979) said we make assumptions about each others’ future actions. This guides me toward a definition of the aspects of trust I am referring to here. What we believe about other people’s future actions is the trust I mean. I believe I can count on my friends. If I request something of them, I believe they will figure out a way to help me, in whatever way they are able. I grew up feeling I could always ask my family for help. I was never worried that I might ask for something and be left out in the cold.

So, we have casual lists in our heads. We think we can trust some people or institutions. Others we aren’t so sure about. As a Black man, I grew up very wary of police officers. I tried my best to stay away from them under all circumstances. Later I worked with Secret Service on a Presidential candidate’s travels and developed a respect and trust for that unit of police professionals. It made me realize some bad apples does not mean all police officials are untrustworthy.

Trust is fundamental in many aspects of our lives. Economic systems are steeped in the need for trust. Unless you are using gold coins to shop with, your shopping trip employs trust. Your wallet has cash and credit cards. The cash is a piece of paper that was issued by a bank. That paper represents a promise of stable value that everyone has a shared trust in. There have been times in history when a county’s paper currency has lost all worth. Your credit cards are trust agreements between issuers and shopkeepers that they can depend on each other to exchange value.

Our money relations points to another aspect of the definitions of trust. Trust underlies social and business contracts. When I enter into a contract, I depend on the other to keep the promises in the contract. Of course, there are incentives and penalties involved in most contracts, but our mutual trust reduces the cost involved in contracts. Trust benefits the economy in its role as social lubricant.

Risk involves trust because we engage in trade-offs between risk and trust each day. Do I count on people to be there when I need them, or do I take precautionary steps to avoid disappointment? Our politics and social relations take awful turns when trust is lost. There are terrible relations between different ethnic groups in the United States today.

There have been cycles of anger against immigrants in the United States. Many in the country believe immigration is out of control. Supposedly, immigrants are to blame for crime, lack of jobs, and the cost of housing. Much public opinion supports harsh measures to reverse immigration. The scapegoating of migrant groups is a constant drumbeat in our social lives. Politicians and the press have created this crest in the wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Every 20 years in the United States there is a wave of anti-immigrant action and legislation. I would argue that politicians and the media have built up the anti-immigrant fervor through twenty years of effort. The payoff is ratings for the media and election victories for the politicians. Another area with a similar history in the US is beliefs about Black Americans. The news media every day broadcasts the danger and untrustworthiness of Black citizens. This has resulted in discrimination, stereotyping, and adverse treatment of Blacks in this country. And in some cases, some police officers can assault or kill Black citizens with impunity. In Southern states, some politicians can be elected year-after-year when they promise to preserve the social order.

An extreme horror story about the breakdown of trust in a society is what happened in Rwanda in 1994. Relations between Hutus and Tutsis resulted in a war of genocide that year. This conflict is especially informative because the two sides had lived together relatively peacefully for hundreds of years. The physical and cultural differences between the two groups hardly existed. Individuals were classified as one or the other by the Belgium colonial rulers and persisted on id documents down to the 1990s, allowing the identification of untrusted enemies who could be attacked. Before the breakdown of society, people could live next door to each other with no reason for hate. Politicians and media broadcasts for more than a year ginned up the differences and hostility until it reached an exploding point. Fortunately, the country has rebounded and is considered a safe destination now with a relatively healthy economy, for the region.

Let’s talk about positive outcomes of trust. In the Basque lands of Spain, there has been a cooperative enterprise that has grown from the 1950s. The Mondragon Corporation began in 1956 and has grown to employ more than 76,000 today with assets making it the tenth largest company in Spain. This shared business attempts to operate with Co-operative principles including democratic organization and social responsibility. Other examples include teams of people who lives depend on working together. Firefighters work to protect the community, and we shouldn’t take for granted their ability to work as a team. Their work boils down to team trust. The team works together well because they trust each other.

On the political scale, countries with higher trust are more successful. Stephen Knack (2001) explains that trust matters for the economic performance of nations. Countries that are peaceful and most comfortable to live in today are ones where citizens trust each other. Examples include all the Scandinavian countries. Denmark has universal health care for all citizens paid by taxes. Denmark is known for being one of the happiest, even granting its small number for prisoners dignity and a great deal of freedom.

Trust allows us to build a beautiful society. I long for the day when the United States can move to embrace increased trust. Imagine what it will be like, on that day, when we trust each other and live in peace. When we make every efforts to prevent the break down of trust during negotiations with foreign nations, and avoid war. It will be a better world to raise future generations in.

More Reading:

Robert D. Putnam, 2000. Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital - Culture and politics — Springe

Niklas Luhmann, 1979. Trust and Power: Two Works by Niklas Luhmann — John Wiley.

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Writer, organizer, political activist.