Our series on “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood” will resume next week with Installment 5: Submit.
“Jesus answered with these words, saying: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ . . . This was said so tenderly, without blame of any kind toward me or anybody else.”—from Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich (1343-1416 or later), English mystic
We find ourselves thrust into an age when the foundations of the world seem to crumble. We wish we could re-anchor our world, put it on a firmer footing. But all hope seems foolish.
May I offer a word of good news? There is something simple—not always easy, but radically simple in concept and execution—that each one of us can do to help set the anchor.
Let us restore Trust.
How often have we seen intractable disputes between nations or between factions moved toward resolution by the use of “confidence-building measures”—small things that begin the restoration of trust? Small things that lead to big things later on.
I would be the apostle of that which is minute. I wish to insist that what is tiny, accumulated relentlessly, sooner or later rules the great.
Once we trusted our government more than we do now. Once we trusted our churches more than we do now. Once we trusted our news sources more than we do now. Once we trusted our police more than we do now.
Once we trusted our neighbor more than we do now.
I am old enough to remember when it seemed we trusted one another in general, with a few exceptions. Now it seems we regard one another through slitted eyes.
None of this happened overnight. I have watched the seepage of Trust from our society, bit by bit, most of my adult life. I cannot precisely measure the outflow, but there can be no doubt that it happened.
This will not be news to you. You know it, too.
A young friend of mine, involved in our community’s nightly street disturbances, posted this justification on Facebook:
i think something people dont understand is that these protests and riots aren’t dangerous. spray painting city property is not dangerous. marching in the streets is not dangerous.
it gets dangerous when police start a fight
arguably, rolling dumpsters to the courthouse and setting them on fire really isn’t that dangerous. it was very controlled. we aren’t idiots.
Okay. Point taken.
So forget windows broken, stores looted, buildings torched. Forget the potential for people to be maimed or killed. Those, after all, are large issues; whereas I am, by my own admission, the apostle of the small.
My young friend is quite right to focus on the trivial, as in “spray painting city property is not dangerous.” But let us examine that modest claim. Wouldn’t it depend on who or what you might think is endangered? It’s true that painting slogans or graffiti on a public building does not directly threaten anybody’s life or limb.
But something even more important is endangered: Trust.
“Wait. Did you just say Trust is more important than life and limb?”
Indeed. For when we endanger life and limb, only one person is affected—or maybe a few people. But when we weaken the Trust that is our society’s glue, we harm everyone.
When we take somebody else’s stuff and spray paint our own message on it, we have taken what is not ours to take. In so doing we have dissolved a smidgen of the mutual trust that society absolutely requires in order to function.
When did we stop knowing this?
Any time we encroach on someone’s property or person, we are tearing down the house we all live in.
By the way, that is the reason bullying is so roundly condemned. Not only for its physical effect on the immediate victim, but because of the harm done to all of us when it is tolerated—leaving us exposed to a more dangerous world we do not entirely trust.
“But, it was city property.”
Okay, but city property is ours only in the sense that it is also everybody else’s. We own it in common with all other citizens. How do we arrogate to ourselves the right to paint it with indicia of our own choosing?
In doing so, we harvest more than the physical results of our vandalism. For our fellow citizens will now trust us less than they did. Or rather, since they may never know exactly who wielded the spray paint, they will now trust people in general less than they did.
It would be the same if we set a dumpster fire. We steal somebody’s dumpster and damage it with flame, smoke, and ash. We release smoke and probably a vile smell into our common air.
We loudly champion the environment, but look: We have just committed a gross act of pollution. The air is not ours alone to foul. It belongs to everybody.
Have we forgotten such elemental concepts? Have our parents failed to teach them to us?
The direct effects of encroaching on other people’s rights are as nothing compared to the erosion of trust that eventually affects us all.
Vandalism, arson, and looting may destroy physical property, sinking the efforts of those who created that property in the first place. But far harder to repair is our broken trust in fellow members of our community.
“Thank you for your touching concern, but I can look out for my own reputation. The trust of my fellow citizens is not as important to me as you may think, Old Timer.”
Ah, no, Grasshopper: If it were only a matter of your reputation suffering at your own hands, I would not mind hanging you out to dry. But something far greater is at stake.
Namely, our future happiness, and that of our children and grandchilden.
Because trust, or lack of trust, does not exist in a vacuum.
When we transgress against what is not ours, the markdown of trust does not accrue to us alone.
The general Trust that keeps society glued together is all one common tissue. Our little bit of it is part of the common pool.
Whenever we squander trust through our own actions, no matter how trivial, the total Trust throughout society goes down. Whenever our conduct vindicates the trust others place in us, the world’s general level of Trust is increased.
That quantum—the summation of small bits of responsible or irresponsible conduct—makes the difference between a High-Trust Society and a Low-Trust Society.
In a Low-Trust Society, everybody locks everything up. Properties of any size at all are guarded by walls topped with barbed wire and broken glass. Cameras lurk everywhere. Shops and offices have small windows or none at all. Strangers are always suspect. A large and aggressive police establishment is required, because nobody is to be trusted.
A High-Trust Society has less need for such precautions. Store owners can display fine merchandise in large picture windows. There is a plenitude of goods and a smaller propensity to steal them. The police, such as they are, may seem more like Andy and Barney in Mayberry. People, in general, are more relaxed.
We would rather live in a High-Trust Society than in the Low-Trust version.
“But you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. All this talk about small virtues is just a smoke screen to maintain the horrific status quo. You’re defending racism.”
It’s understandable that people may think some violation of others’ persons and property is the small, justifiable price to pay for a more perfect society. If a little spray-painting or dumpster-burning saps Trust, then police brutality really zaps Trust. And what about racial discrimination? Does it not automatically send Trust down in flames?
Well, yes. But those are large things, which I hesitate to address. Remember, I am only the apostle of the small.
However, if we should wish to speak of the large: How does it cure the enormity of a race-based murder to pile a thousand little dumpster fires, vandalisms, and angry speeches or social media screeds on top of it?
Please consider: The murder will never be cured. It is too late to restore the victim to life. The chief complaint voiced after each such tragedy—the dreaded future prospect—is that the community continues to live in fear.
Fear is a terrible thing to live in.
Trust is better.
Every act that encroaches on persons or property reduces the total Trust in our society. This includes not just things done in the heat of demonstrations or riots. It also includes acts of larceny, coercion, intimidation, or brutality committed in the course of everyday life. And it includes offenses, large or small, that are done by law enforcement officers who should know better.
All such encroachments—not just those motivated by racism—are bad. All of them make it harder for us to function as a society of people who mostly trust one another.
It is mistaken to think that our graffiti or our dumpster fire is okay, or even laudable, because it is not a racial slur or a police shooting. Two wrongs, in all human history, have never yet added up to a right.
What I Am Not Saying: I am not saying we should simply trust one another, regardless of the evidence of our experience.
What I Am Saying: I am saying that to get more Trust in society we must first act in ways that engender trust, not in ways that dissipate trust.
What I Am Not Saying: I am not saying we should not protest wrongdoing.
What I Am Saying: I am saying we will not cure a great wrongdoing by means of lesser wrongdoings.
To restore Trust to our world requires millions of acts of decency, not contempt, by millions of people, over the course of many years. That’s the kind of army one might hope to join.
But an act of vandalism in the streets is the same category of thing as the police shooting of an unarmed black man. They are both the same kind of act.
They are misguided aggressions which degrade the community as a whole, leading not to a better society but to a Lower-Trust society, and thus a worse one.
Small, seemingly unimportant, acts of incivility and barbarism are major contributors to the sweeping malaise of our society, which boils down to a deficit of Trust.
Our world lacks Trust because so many of us, so often, fail to be trustworthy.
If each one of us undertook, as a personal mission, to treat other people and their property with unfailing respect, we could begin to restore a world we can all trust.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)
One of my professors at Western Seminary said one day, “We tend never really to trust other human beings. We simply lower our level of distrust in certain cases.”
An interesting point of view, Bob. I think some people are more trusting than others. But in any case, we most encourage trust by being trustworthy.
It is much easier to trust an individual than to trust an institution. It’s a feeling of depersonalization/dehumanization that I think causes people to lose trust in the latter. Remembering the person(s) who might be harmed by an act or a policy would go a long way toward rebuilding social trust. When I walk in my neighborhood and see everyone wearing a mask, I feel seen, and I feel responsible to uphold my end of the social contract by wearing one, too. You are correct that it is the small acts that build trust, but in our modern world it also means that institutions must also make people feel seen rather than dehumanized. I think this is at the core of the BLM and of young people’s frustration, but violence will never be the answer whether it is verbal, physical, or directed at property.
Thanks for the astute observations, Trish. I would add only that when institutions decide how they will treat people, it is actually still individual people deciding how they will conduct themselves within the decision machinery of the institution–will they be contributors toward wise and humane policies, remembering that the institution has no inherent value outside of the people it serves, or will they incline the institution towards inhuman values that serve some mythical concept of the institution itself?