When I take a painkiller, I trust that a reputed company’s product, bought at my local trusted pharmacy, will just make my pain go away, not kill me. My pharmacist in turn believes the company’s promise that it is shipping a painkiller – not cyanide – under its brand, and that the currency note I gave him is genuine legal tender, not something I printed in my home using a sophisticated laser printer.
In this one small transaction, we have relied on trust in the government, in the legal tender, in law enforcement that can keep fake notes from flooding the country, in the brand promise of BigPharma, in the medicines regulator who controls what is allowed to be sold and not sold in our pharmacies over the counter, in adverse event reporting processes available to the pharmacist and the doctors, and finally in our mutual trust that as neighbours, who see each other daily, we won’t shaft each other trivially.
Trust is vital for all and any human interaction. Especially for a functioning democracy and for stable societies.
The years 2016 and 2017 have been record-breaking in recent memory in destroying trust at several levels: the trust between citizens and institutions, between citizens and their blatantly lying or less-than-truthful and habitually bullshitting leaders, between citizens and law enforcement, between the executive and the judiciary, between the press and the public although this has been brewing a while. At an interpersonal level, the lack of trust between people in power imbalanced relationships as evidenced by the #MeToo campaign became the story of the year 2017 and is unlikely to stop in the coming year. Consumers are also increasingly aware that they cannot trust big businesses or widely used brands such as Facebook after its role in shaping the last US elections, Uber and its multisplendoured catalogue of mishaps and disastrous executive decisions that have required the new CEO to go on an “apology tour“, AirBnB to name but a few. In just ten years we have gone from trusting strangers to utter mistrust.
On the bright side, we have begun to see extensive documentation of broken trust, refusal to be gaslighted, and instant and persistent questioning of those whose behaviours continue to damage the fragile fabric of trust in society at large. For instance, when New York Times publishes a weaselly interview with Mr Trump, the journalist instantly got called out for doing a poor job of journalism and breaking journalistic integrity by nodding along rather than questioning falsehoods advanced by his interviewee.
And yet it can get worse as Black Mirror’s recently aired Season 4 shows. Aided by our passive complicity and zombie-like march into oblivion.
It is clear that if we are to stop the growing malaise — physical, mental, social — resulting from this onslaught on our basic assumptions for human interaction, we must rebuild trust at various levels.
This is my personal manifesto in 2018.
Exactly ten years ago, I wrote about trust as social currency and how we decide to trust at all.
Trust is more a renewable licence to be believed than a permanent relationship marker. We repose our trust in an entity – person, institution, cult even – based on several factors, and the trust can be positive or negative.
* Credential e.g. if you are a journalist with a publication that overwhelmingly publishes materials with a skew against Jews, Muslims, women, people of colour, the trust reposed in you will be consistent but negative.
* Credibility based on the track record e.g. if you are driven by factual information and data in your writing, then your commentary may receive positive trust from those who can see your methodology transparently.
* Divergent behaviours from the track record that come without disclosures that could explain the divergence; divergence can be an event when the “licence” needs to be reconsidered e.g. if you are a person, who writes about dogs and has a huge audience, and you suddenly start writing about the Mueller investigation in the USA or the Indian press’s treatment of Mr Modi, expect the dog lovers to start asking questions.
* Alignment with interests and this one affects everyone so disclosure is paramount. Absent disclosure of alignments, expect little trust to be reposed in you. For instance, as a board director with several institutions, I disclose every time I tweet something from or about them, or something that may benefit them or amplify their official stance. Equally I maintain discretion in commenting on certain things which may create compliance headaches for those companies, and I hold myself to the highest standards of integrity and independence as required of board directors.
The rebuild will take time.
When flooding hits a house, the rebuild is not easy. It is not as simple as drying out the floor and walls, which can take months, and repairing the cosmetic damage with fresh paint and hanging back the pictures. One must check for contamination, visible damage to the structure, and hidden damage to sewage lining or electric wiring which can be catastrophic. It can be a long-drawn process, and one must steel oneself for finding information hitherto hidden in the walls or often the wallpaper.
It is likewise with rebuilding trust after a flood of mistrust, disinformation, lies and broken promises and pledges.
It will take time.
The price of trust and trusting and renewing or withdrawing trust is eternal vigilance. Abre les ojos, open your eyes.
Tonight, wherever you celebrate the midnight hour — whether at the India Gate, at La Tour Eiffel, at the banks of the Thames, at Times Square, or like me, soundly asleep in bed — consider the biggest endeavour of our lives.
Let’s rebuild trust.
Let’s rebuild trustworthiness.
Starting with ourselves.
Be trustworthy. And dare to trust.