I’ve been thinking a lot about trust lately. As the global pandemic grinds into its ninth (tenth? eleventh?) month, I’ve noticed a decidedly weary and cynical thread in many conversations. People are fatigued, obviously. They are tired of restrictions, tired of uncertainty, tired of agonizing over how the bills will be paid, tired of being unable to spend time with people they love, tired of feeling guilty when they sneak in a bit of illicit social connection, tired of politicians and health officials wagging moralizing fingers at them daily. But beyond this, I detect a sort of resigned cynicism, a sense that nobody can be trusted, and nobody really knows what’s going on. This is a dangerous place to be.
Trust in the media is perhaps at an all-time low. News outlets are now often prefixed with terms like “left-wing” or “right-wing” thus demonstrating our awareness of and expectation that the news comes to us heavily filtered and edited for ideological conformity. We suspect that nobody is telling us the whole truth (about COVID or anything else), that inconvenient data is always being hidden from view, and that, as always, profit is the driving force behind it all. Add to this the toxic sludge and hysteria of social media and you’re left with a communication ecosystem that is a breeding ground for misinformation, disinformation, and partial information. And of course, there’s just so much media content generated these days that many despair of even trying to keep up with it all. We’ll just watch another episode on Netflix thank you very much.
Trust in politicians wouldn’t rank much higher than that of the media. Over the last nine months, we’ve seen so many flip flops, so many stuttering and inconsistent policy implementations with such inconclusive results that we can often hardly be bothered to pay attention when a politician opens her mouth these days. Sadly, we’ve long tolerated and expected from our elected officials a base level of deceit, self-interest, and meaningless jargon that makes little contact with lived reality. We expect our leaders to toe the party line come hell or high water. Suffice to say that the pandemic hasn’t really changed much of this.
We don’t even trust health professionals and scientists. At least not as much as we probably could or should. Didn’t they say we shouldn’t wear masks back in April? And I found this YouTube video of a virologist saying it’s all a hoax anyway. Or I found another video saying we’re on the precipice of a health catastrophe (you can always find a video where someone smart is saying what you want to hear, right?). And what do all these COVID stats even mean? I know a guy in his seventies who was positive and had a headache for two days. Or I know a woman in her twenties who died. Yeah, but what about comorbidities? Or, yeah, but what about the long-term effects even of asymptomatic cases? What counts as a “COVID death” and what doesn’t? Who decides? Who knows?
And of course, we increasingly don’t really trust each other. We are becoming ever more suspicious of our neighbours. Why isn’t that person wearing a mask? Are they trying to infect us all? How could they be so ignorant?! Why are all those stupid sheep wearing masks? Can’t they think for themselves? Why does that person have cars in their driveway? Haven’t they heard of the new restrictions on social gatherings? I should probably report them! Or post a scathing rebuke on Facebook! We do our best to keep two meters apart physically (sometimes) but we’re often far further apart than that in our hearts and minds.
A world where nobody trusts traditional institutions of knowledge or wisdom is sobering to contemplate. It leaves us each as individual arbiters of our own preferred version of the truth. It is a context that leaves us uniquely vulnerable to authoritarianism and manipulation. It is, in some ways, the logical terminus of Nietzsche’s nihilistic view of reality where the last remaining value, when all grand narratives of meaning and ethical norms have been exposed, found wanting, and rejected, is power. Power to control discourse, power to enforce conformity, power to shape norms, power to credit or discredit institutions. Power to shape reality according to our preferences.
I’m not a politician or a scientist or a health professional. I’m not even an expert on media, much as I like to pontificate about it. But what I can say with some confidence is that we need trust to thrive (or survive) as human beings, as communities, as nation, even as a species. Trust is earned, we say, and this is certainly true on one level. We are right to demand evidence of trustworthiness from our politicians, our scientists, our media, and our health professionals, particularly if any of these institutions have betrayed public trust in the past. But we cannot give up on trust entirely and fall prey to the cheap and easy cynicism that crouches at our door. If trusting the media or politicians seems a bridge too far, perhaps we could start with something as small and simple as being willing to give our neighbours the proverbial “benefit of the doubt?”
On the deepest level, trust is inherently relational and inherently personal. I trust my wife because I have known and loved her for nearly three decades. I know her character. I don’t require her to earn my trust afresh each morning. It is a given in my life. Similarly, I trust the God revealed most clearly in Jesus Christ because I have walked with him for nearly four decades. I have seen in his call to pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful validated in my experience of the world. I have experienced the freedom of unmerited forgiveness and mercy in my own life. My imagination has been expanded, my vision liberated, and my hope enlarged. I have tasted grace and have been bound more closely to its source.
Trust requires vulnerability, no doubt. It could prove to be misplaced. There is always this risk. But I think it’s worth it. The alternatives are too bleak. A world where we each preside over our own paltry ideological kingdoms, where we are inherently suspicious of everyone and everything, where we abandon all pretense of collective responsibility, where we can’t even be bothered to care and get lost in endless distraction and entertainment? Even misplaced trust seems preferable to a world like that.