Monday, July 27, 2015

The Value and the Abuse of Human Trust

We cannot live as human persons or build human community together if we cannot trust one another. Trust is a normal component of human communication, and it is founded on the basic expectation we have that others are telling the truth. The expectation of truth and the human orientation to trusting place great responsibility on anyone who takes up a position of authority in a community.

One way or another, we must keep the trust that is given to us (especially if we are in a position of authority).  When this trust breaks down, we are forced to live in suspicion of one another and we become increasingly isolated. This is why deception is destructive in human relationships: when it is exposed, trust is compromised, but when it succeeds, trust is abused and becomes the inroad to manipulation of others. When authorities abuse trust, they can cause great damage to persons and communities.

Human beings make daily decisions in many things through a complex and informal reasoning process. And yet we do this spontaneously and with a measure of confidence in our understanding. This is founded not only on common sense realism, but also on the interpersonal context within which we perceive and judge things.

We approach reality as persons-in-relationship with others, and among the crucial relationships in life are the connections we have with authorities. Our method of understanding will not be solid, however, if it merely conforms to an external source through coercion. Rather, the reasonable and personal response to a genuine authority is trust.

Thus we can see that trust is essential to everyday life.

We live by trust all the time, in the most mundane circumstances. For example, I would not embark on a unknown difficult hike (back in the days when I was able to hike) without someone who knew the path. Or at least I would take a map (made by someone else).

Am I being unreasonable in so doing? Certainly not, because often the reasonable thing to do is to trust someone else's authority. People tend to rely on what they perceive to be authority much more than they realize. It's natural to trust, and we do a lot of it every day. This can be simply recognizing that someone has the knowledge we need in a particular circumstance and is willing to convey it (a very basic kind of "authority"). But it also spans over a whole range of relationships and activities right up to the cohesiveness of a political and social community.

It is reasonable to trust others whose authority is a service to us. But it is also reasonable (indeed essential) that we have at least a common sense judgment that an authority is trust-worthy (or if we can't have that judgment, we have a right to know what level of risk we're taking in "lending" credibility to an unverifiable source).

Here is where human pride and ambition can play clever games and use tricks to buy our trust through fixating our fascination, making false promises, and using psychological or emotional manipulation. The result is a pathological, dehumanizing false trust that takes advantage of and distorts this essential feature of human living.

Sometimes the abusers of trust simply want to cheat us. People are thus misled, innocently, to a shakedown. We trust the wrong people, and then we discover that the investment was a fake and our money is all gone. In such cases we experience how deception is a form of violence: it makes a bald, frontal attack on our trust, in order to profit from it.

But the more psychologically complex abuse of trust holds out promises, draws us along, and tangles our own hopes within its web of lies. Soon we begin ourselves to connive in the deception, as we dismiss "warning signs" -- issues that require examination and verification -- because we have become attached to false hopes. When this happens, we are in danger of losing much more than our money.

Trust is a powerful energy within the person, which is why the systematic manipulation and abuse of trust can cause a counterfeit of community. It can lead to an efficient conformity between oppressors and the oppressed based on external fear, or (something worse) the internal subversion of the expectations and desires of people.

Thus it is that the abuse of trust leads to the cult, the fanatical revolutionary or reactionary party, the dictatorship, the all-encompassing conformity, the blind devotion to false duty, the persecution of non-conformists (whether they willfully resist or simply belong to the wrong ideological category), the concentration camps, the gas chambers, the gulag, the "re-education" program.

We saw this kind of abuse of trust on a vast scale in the past century and we continue to see it today, in new and diverse ways. We must especially pay attention to the "softer" forms of the abuse of trust, in which social forces connive to bring about the manipulation and standardization of opinion. Anyone who tries to expose "soft" conformity is threatened not with the death camp, but with social marginalization.

Such soft conformity, however, is not and cannot bring forth a genuine human community. It delivers only superficial sentiments of common affirmation, beneath which yawn great chasms of mistrust, suspicion, isolation, and loneliness.

Without real trust between people there can be no community. And there can be no constructive human society without institutions and authorities that are worthy of people's trust.