Trust

A Pew report released a few weeks ago announced that, among other things, Millennials are low on social trust:

In response to a long-standing social science survey question, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people,” just 19% of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, 37% of Silents and 40% of Boomers.

They have a graph and everything.

The implication – from Pew and others – is that a decline in trust is a bad thing. In Robert Putnam’s model, for example, a decline in trust correlates with a decline in social capital. And low social capital leads to a whole slew of negative outcomes for individuals and communities.

More generally, its easy to look at low levels of trust two ways: either people are trustworthy but not trusted – which doesn’t sound ideal – or people are not trusted because they are not trustworthy – in which case, you’ve probably got bigger societal issues to deal with.

So, which kind of society are we?

Pew postulates that low levels of social trust come from the unprecedented diversity among this generation. Previous Pew research showed that “minorities and low-income adults had lower levels of social trust than other groups.” Additionally, “sociologists have theorized that people who feel vulnerable or disadvantaged for whatever reason find it riskier to trust.”

So, basically, if you’ve been screwed over by The Man, you’re not likely to trust The Man. Well, that seems reasonable.

Maybe Millennials say that most people can’t be trusted because…most people can’t be trusted. I mean, seriously, what is news beyond a series of reports on people and institutions you’d be wise not to trust?

But maybe the deeper story is more complex than that.

There is, it seems, an important difference between people and a person.

People are likely to trample you if the building catches on fire. People are likely to get whipped into a frenzy – or to stand by in apathy, assuming somebody else will act. People are a generalization, an abstraction, a stand-in for the formless masses you’ve never met.

A person is different. A person is specific. Whether their deeds are heroic or despicable, their acts are theirs alone and you can judge them individually.

Do I trust John Smith? Let me evaluate that based off his character.

Do I trust people? Aw, hell no.

I can see why Putnam and others would find a lack of trust disturbing. It may indeed bode ill for civil society.

But it doesn’t have to.

When strangers strike up conversation – which happens all the time – I don’t trust them. I consciously monitor what I say, being sure not to give away too many personal details. Where I live, where I work, where I’m going.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a perfectly lovely conversation.

Everyone’s a stranger when you first meet them. Some are totally unvoutched for – a stranger at a bus stop – while others seem automatically trustworthy through a trusted acquaintance. And, of course, there is everything in between.

It seems perfectly reasonable – and probably wise – not to trust a stranger at a bus stop. I’m okay with encouraging that kind of behavior.

But you know what I’d like to see more of? More conversation about about to be neighborly in an untrustworthy world.

If you smile at a stranger on the street – yeah, sometimes your gonna get that creeper who will cause you to detour into a store – but most of the time, you’ll just get a smile back. Or you’ll be completely ignored.

A lack of trust doesn’t have to lead to a lack of civil society. Perhaps we just need to rethink the rules of the game.

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