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On Trust

By: Nick Gibson

How did we get here?

How is it possible that in the last few years, particularly in the last few months, we have seen movements, ideologies, and trends that we thought we had put in the dustbin of history?

We are at the point that violent attacks on governmental and other public institutions, including a literal insurrection in the US Capitol are jarring, yet somehow unsurprising.

There are numerous credible explanations for these phenomena, but I argue that there is a collection of factors responsible, surmised as the erosion of trust.

If we have learned anything in the last few years, it is that societal trust is at an all-time low. In Canada, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Report outlines various indicators of this erosion of trust: lower confidence in future prospects, capitalism, technology, information/news quality, prominent leaders, and more. These trends are often more pronounced in other Western countries. It is hard to find any major institutions in Western societies that have grown or even maintained trust in these past few years.

Even trust between citizens (particularly those of different ideological foundations) has eroded. One example in the United States: while Gallup has found that approval for interracial marriage has steadily increased to near-unanimity over the decades, approval of sons and daughters marrying partners of the opposite political party affiliation has decreased markedly. There is reason to think that Canada is trending in similar directions.

For anyone who thinks about this phenomenon for more than a moment, a realization sets in very quickly: this is incredibly dangerous.

I can often be skeptical of blanket explanations that seem to underlie many problems, but it is difficult for me to find almost any trend that is more threatening than the erosion of trust between human beings - both interpersonally, and with institutions.

Let’s use a sports analogy for a moment: take Ultimate Frisbee. For those not familiar with the sport, it is a combination of American football, European Handball, and even a dash of soccer. It is also self-officiated: “relying on the on-field players to call their own infractions and to try their best to play within the rules of the game. It is assumed that players will not intentionally violate the rules and will be honest when discussing foul calls with opponents…”.

So when there is a close call, it is expected that opponents will discuss the rules in good faith. It is not perfect, but in my experience, it tends to work quite well. It is a well-established norm of the sport.

It isn’t like there are no rules in the sport either. There are rules, but it is the execution and enforcement of the rules that matters for our purpose here.

This principle of following unwritten rules and self-officiating applies to our most fundamental institutions as well. Let’s apply this to a specific example. Put aside the particular actors involved in current political debates, and let’s evaluate the principle of “concession” in American Presidential elections. In the “rules” there is no compulsion to “concede”: it is simply the counting and certifying of electoral votes that determines the winner. So why does concession matter?

It matters because the legitimacy of the system is built upon conventions around a sort of “sportsmanship” (like Ultimate Frisbee). The duly-executed concession signals to a candidate’s supporters that, while they are disappointed, this outcome is legitimate and they will live to fight another day. Otherwise, supporters will start to question the results, and the snowballing erosion of trust will move into high gear.

We can even go beyond politics for a more fundamental example: money itself is merely an instrument of trust. There is no inherent value to it, beyond perhaps the minimal material of the hard coin forms. The entire monetary system is predicated on trust that can evaporate seemingly in an instant, as seen in various countries with inflation and currency crises.

So trust underlies some of our most fundamental institutions. It is also at the heart of our relationships.

On some of the most contentious issues of our day, the challenge is often less about the “policy” or even the specific ideas themselves, but rather the trust between people that “you are on my team, and have my interests at heart”. Many of us have people in our lives that we fundamentally disagree with on important issues, and yet, we still have a productive and even loving relationship. However, these bonds are also eroding. Our identities have increasingly been wrapped up in political colours as our quintessential defining trait, rather than a mere segment of an otherwise unique individual. And this increased sense of political tribalism has confronted the types of relationships I mentioned above: differing views but loving anyways.

If it was not already clear, this situation is complicated. Frankly, sometimes it is appropriate to move on from people who hold fundamentally different worldviews. However, often these breaks with people are devoid of any kind of reciprocal work to empathize and learn. Each person is high on hubris, and deficient on humility.

These seemingly small and even insignificant interpersonal dynamics are scaling, and interacting with other corrosive macro trends to threaten our way of life, and our ability to make it better for those who need us.

So what does a change agent do about this?

Start with gifting trust. Start with humility. Start with sportsmanship.

I don’t pretend that this is easy for anyone, particularly those feeling the brunt of society’s many ills. I also believe that it is not possible in every situation. However, it is the only way we take this on as individuals. There is a role for institutional reform, but those institutions cannot get reformed without the bottom-up work of rebuilding trust starting with each of us. It just so happens that it can be the most rewarding thing that we do for ourselves too: we are wired to “other” but we are also wired to collaborate and trust.

It is the only way we got to where we are as a species, and it is the only way we work ourselves out of this death spiral.

Nick is a social entrepreneur, speaker, coach/facilitator, and change agent. Despite a successful career at a global market research consulting firm, he will be the first to point out that there were bigger problems in the world that he was not adequately addressing in his day job. This tension forced him to found Our Better Selves: a venture focused on unleashing a vibrant, empowered, and thriving community of change agents focused on solving critical problems of human flourishing aligned with their values.

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