Rebuilding Our Trust
Supplanting the occasional malfeasance with mass imbecility in the form of open disdain for experts is suicidal for a society.
The most critical component of a functioning society is the common bond of mutual trust. Just about everything we do requires trust.
Trust means having confidence that the $20 passed to you is real. Trust means eating a burger and enjoying it because it’s not tainted with food poisoning. Trust means driving down the road and not fearing the oncoming traffic will veer into your lane and cause a head-on collision. Trust means relying on the institutions and people we’ve put in positions of authority to act for the common good.
However, in recent years, there’s been an alarming decline in trust. This downward trend has led to a crisis in confidence, with potentially catastrophic consequences for everyone. The gravity of this problem cannot be overstated.
Deserved or unjustified, duplicitous or spontaneous — trust has certainly waned. This goes for trust in our government. This goes for trust in public institutions. This goes for trust in colleges and universities. This goes for trust in science and scientists. This goes for trust in law enforcement and the criminal justice system. This goes for trust in nearly everything. Educators are shouted down at public meetings. The top infectious disease expert in this country is a target of personal attacks and even death threats. The best minds in the world are mocked and ridiculed (though I believe this is far more acutely an American problem than a global one — we don’t see this level of mistrust in most other countries).
Let’s be clear. Mistrust is dangerous, especially when it’s cast with such reckless abandon. Mistrust is also a lazy response. Destroying trust is simple. Building it takes work. It’s far easier to burn down a house than to build one. And so, we must have mutual trust, and if we don’t, then it’s incumbent on us to do something about it so as to reinstill our collective confidence.
Historically, the Left used to be the primary catalyst for mass mistrust, usually with overwhelming justifications. War-mad monarchies, corrupt religious orders, and other vestiges of old-world power grotesquely abused their lofty positions of authority. So, Leftists protested, and in many cases revolted, and fortunately even sometimes succeeded. Indeed, virtually all human progress came from Leftist-led movements grounded in mistrust of the establishment. Who can now say the Left was wrong about battling the ancient castes of racism, sexism, privilege by birthright, and other forms of mass inequality?
Today, however, it’s the Right that’s leading the mistrust brigades. The irony of all ironies, the Left has become the defender of the establishment — including the government and many public institutions. It’s a massive unanticipated flip-flop. Open any webpage from a Right-wing political site and you will see countless embers of rage against, well, just about everything.
So, what does it really mean to “question authority?” In many circles, it’s considered cool to be anti-establishment. I think most of us totally get that. We are all rebels in some way. We’ve all become wandering disciples of the late George Carlin, who frequently railed against the establishment throughout his prolific career as a stand-up performer. Yet oddly, the lambs have now become the wolves. The rebellious thing to do isn’t to make fun of politicians. That’s not brave, at all. The truly rebellious thing to do would be to defend the need for authority and to pledge to the principle that people should be motivated to do good things rather than bad things. What a radical idea!
But Carlinism rules the land. Everything gets questioned. Anti-authority is a battle flag. Cynicism is toxic.
Sorry to break this news to you, but the people with letters next to their names and certificates on the wall usually know far more about a subject than we do. Watching a 5-minute video on YouTube doesn’t make you a pandemics expert. Listening to “FOX and Friends” each day doesn’t transform you into a foreign policy analyst. Scrolling through a dozen memes doesn’t confer you as an economist. Do you think you know more than “experts?” No, you don’t. Otherwise, perform your own surgery when you need your gall bladder taken out. See how that goes.
Certainly, there are way too many examples of institutions letting us down, lying to us, and abusing our trust. History is filled with such crimes and they are still happening today. When that happens, there should be severe consequences. But let’s also remember we’re much better off when we’ve listened to experts, whether it’s coming up with cures for deadly diseases, inventing electric cars, or going to the moon. Experts make things happen and get stuff done.
Supplanting the occasional malfeasance with mass imbecility in the form of open disdain for experts is suicidal for a society. We must have trust in government. We must have trust in schools, in courtrooms, and in the police. We must even have some measure of trust in those whom we disagree with.
We must trust each other. Without trust, we are left with nothing but chaos.