“I only trust you as far as I can throw you.”
“Trust, but verify.”
“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
Trust is important in the smallest of transactions, but trust is essential to the continued operation of a civilization. With trust comes commonality. If I trust you, that means I found something in you that I also find in me. I can take risks with you and still expect to be dealt with fairly.
Expanding out to a society as a whole, trust is the lubricant that makes life run smoothly. You trust your employer to pay you for the work you do. You trust the seller on eBay to include your product and not just a handful of rocks. You trust eBay to fix it when the seller sends you rocks. You trust your neighbors to not take advantage when you go on vacation. You trust the justice system to make your neighbors pay for the damage when they take advantage.
Commonality. They are like me, so they will deal with me in a predictable and stable way. They may not do the right thing every time, but I can count on the consequences catching up to wrongdoers and the benefits catching up to those who do wise things.
Until recently, the myth of commonality was still strong. It may not have been as true as people believed it to be, but the fact that people, by and large, operated in good faith tended to smooth out many of the wrinkles. Commonality has tended to work better on smaller scales. Village, community, town. Not so well on larger scales. What do I, suburban flyover inhabitant, have in common with your average Harlem resident? Not much. And that’s where the cracks began to form. The illusion of national commonality was more of a mainstream culture thing. For the longest time, a very WASPy thing. Ignore the blacks, ignore the immigrant enclaves, ignore the Amish and the natives. The mainstream culture was one of national commonality in the 20th century up until the 60s.
As the rifts began to form, the commonality declined, but the patriotism of the people, the slow moving nature of the culture, and a heaping helping of lackadaisical disinterest in rocking the boat by a large majority of the country resulted in this common inertia. Race relations were improving, internicene bickering was background noise. “This is fine” was the motto as an unseen rot chewed through institutions.
What unseen rot? Deconstructionism. Those smarmy assholes who are on the front lines of killing various institution of repute, gutting them, and skinsuiting them. The media, academia, corporate HR departments, non-profits, local governments, school boards. All infested with the amoral termites chewing away at the commonality and culture that has held this country together for over a century.
Now we see the result, weaponized institutions. The problem they have, though, is the fact that they’ve moved too fast. People still remember what it was like when the country didn’t hate itself, when every decision wasn’t dissected looking for the slightest hint of heterodox thought to be labeled with whichever form of bigotry fits the mob’s fancy. The result is a very quick and pronounced descent into a culture of low institutional trust.
When people are bombarded day in and day out with boys crying wolf, eventually people either lose their minds or tune it out. “Wolf!” shouts another one. With a weary sigh, the people demand a pelt before they believe it. The inherent trust is gone. People have their guard up at all times.
The biggest problem with living in a low trust environment like today is that everybody feels the need to walk on eggshells. Companies talk about “bringing your whole self to work”, but everybody who doesn’t voice the company line knows that the company is just beckoning you to come take a look at the wolf they’ve caught, oh and ignore the baseball bat they’re brandishing. Activists talk about having conversations, but people know that they’re liable to be labeled a wolf for saying or not saying the wrong thing. Beyond just a lack of commonality, people have begun to assume discommonality in others. They hunt for the slightest sign that others are not in common and use that difference as an excuse to close themselves off. Instead of bring their whole self to work, people are bringing a highly curated facade that doesn’t say untoward things.
The thing is, though, people crave that commonality. It’s the basis of community. As we move away from a society where community could be quite large, with people trusting in the commonality of total strangers, we’re seeing a tightening of social circles, where even old friends are viewed with a wary eye. “Are you one of them? Are you going to ruin my life because I say something you don’t like?”
As our tribes shrink, there’s a certain measure of trust that will be regained, but I don’t think we’ll ever return to that innocent culture in the 20th century when people broadly trusted in the commonality of others. National commonality and institutional trust are gone, and closing the barn door isn’t gonna help.