We find ourselves thrust into an age when the foundations of the world crumble. We wish we could re-anchor our world, put it on a firmer footing. But all hope seems vain.
Here, then, is good news: There is something simple—not easy, but simple in concept and execution—that each one of us can do to help set the anchor.
We must restore Trust.
In the world’s large affairs, disputes between nations or factions are moved inch-by-inch toward resolution through “confidence-building measures”—small actions that begin the renewal of trust.
Small things can lead to big things.
Let me be the apostle of small things. Allow me to insist that the tiny, relentlessly accumulated, sooner or later rules the great.
Once upon a time, we trusted our government more than we do now. We trusted our churches more than we do now. We trusted our news sources more than we do now. We trusted our police more than we do now.
I am old enough to remember when we trusted one another in general, even as we reserved the right to suspicion in special cases. Nowadays, however, we regard one another through slitted eyes.
This change did not happen overnight. I have watched the seepage of Trust from our society, bit by bit, most of my adult life. There is no precise measure of that outflow, but there can be no doubt that it happened.
This will not be not news to you. You know it, too.
A young friend of mine, involved in our community’s nightly street disturbances in 2020, 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.
Forget windows broken, stores looted, buildings torched. Forget the potential for people to be maimed or killed. Those, after all, are large issues, and I am the apostle of the small.
My young friend is right to focus on the trivial, as in “spray painting city property is not dangerous.” But let us examine that claim.
Wouldn’t it depend on who or what you might think is endangered? True, painting slogans or graffiti on a public building does not directly threaten anybody’s life or limb.
But something more important is endangered: Trust.
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.
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 grant ourselves alone the special right to paint it with art of our own choosing?
In doing so, we cause more than the physical results of our vandalism. Our fellow citizens will now trust us less than they did. Or, since they may never know who it was that 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 deem ourselves protectors of the environment, but look: We have just committed a gross act of pollution. The air is not ours 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. But far harder to repair is our broken Trust in the protectiveness, the essential safety, 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.”
Have you been listening at all, Grasshopper? If you were destroying only your own reputation, I would not lose much sleep.
But something greater is at stake: Namely, our future happiness, and that of our children and grandchilden.
Trust, or lack of Trust, does not exist in a vacuum.
When you break what is not yours, the markdown of Trust does not accrue to you alone.
The generalized Trust that keeps society glued together is all one thing. That’s why, as you may notice, I use a capital T. Your little bit of that Trust is part of the common pool.
When you piss away trust through your own actions, the total Trust in our society goes down. When your conduct validates trust placed in you, total Trust is increased.
That—the sum of small increments 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 are guarded by walls topped with barbed wire and broken glass. Cameras are everywhere. Stores and businesses have small windows, or none at all. Strangers are viewed with suspision. A large, aggressive police establishment is called forth, because nobody is to be trusted.
A High-Trust Society has less need for such precautions. Store owners display fine merchandise in large picture windows. There is a plenitude of goods and a smaller propensity to steal them. What police there are may seem more like Andy and Barney in Mayberry. People are more relaxed, less guarded.
Such societies do exist, or did. I remember.
You and I would rather live in a High-Trust Society than the Low-Trust version.
“But you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
What if we must violate others’ persons and property in order to build a more perfect society? If even a little act like spray-painting a building or burning a dumpster destroys Trust, then what about police brutality? What about racial discrimination? Don’t they destroy Trust even more? May we not need to combat larger crimes with smaller ones?
Every act that encroaches on persons or property reduces the total of 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 everyday life. It includes offenses done by law enforcement officers who should know better.
All such encroachments are bad. All of them make it harder for us to build a society of people who mostly trust one another.
It is mistaken to think your graffiti or your dumpster fire is okay, or even laudable, because it is not a racial slur or a police shooting; or that your graffiti or dumpster fire may prevent future racial slurs and police shootings.
Your act of vandalism in the streets is the same kind of thing as the police shooting of an unarmed black man, different only in scale. Both acts violate other people’s rights, degrade our sense of community, and lead to a Lower-Trust society
Two wrongs, in the whole history of good and evil, have never yet added up to a right.
Small offenses, while not as extreme as large ones, are much more numerous. Taken together, they may bleed off much more Trust from society at large.
Here Is What I Am Not Saying: I am not saying we should simply trust one another more, regardless of our experience.
Here Is What I Am Saying: I am saying that we need more Trust in society, and that to get it we must act in ways that engender trust, not in ways that squander trust.
Here Is What I Am Not Saying: I am not saying that you have no right to protest wrongdoing.
Here Is What I Am Saying: I am saying that you can not protest a great wrongdoing by means of lesser wrongdoings. To do so squanders trust, thus adding to the problem, not subtracting from it. Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King knew this, preached it, and practiced it.
I have tried to show that small, seemingly inconsequential, acts of incivility and barbarism are actually dangerous contributors to the sweeping malaise of our society, which is largely a simple deficit of Trust.
This is, in brief, an appeal for us all to hold ourselves to a high standard of trustworthiness in all our acts.
Trust and fear exist together. You cannot separate them.
They live on a continuum, with trust at one end, fear at the other.
Which do you prefer?
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer