7 Reasons Americans Have Stopped Trusting One Another
Here's the weirdest and saddest statistic I know: only 19 percent of millennials think the average person can be trusted.
That's a bizarrely, alarmingly low number. These may be the most distrustful people in American history. And keep in mind that it's not that they're cynical in general -- their trust of the government and corporations is the same as those of previous generations, and their levels of optimism are actually higher. They trust the system. They just don't trust each other.
Now, I haven't trusted anyone since age five, when my dad told me that Santa wasn't real because he had died in 1970 after being stabbed by a pimp he'd refused to pay, so I'm in the same boat. But we need to get to the bottom of this.
Let's Ask Ourselves The World's Most Unsettling Question
Think of the worst person you know of, past or present. Hopefully someone who you know quite a bit about. Now ask yourself:
If you were in their situation, would you have done the same things they did?
You're going to say no, because obviously you're not a serial killer or Nazi torturer or Alex Jones or whoever you picked. But when I say "in their situation," I mean the whole thing. You'd have their physical impulses, including any illnesses or personality disorders. You'd have their upbringing, their genes, any childhood trauma. You'd have all of the information that they absorbed over the course of their life -- and only that information -- and you would only be capable of processing it in the same way they do.
"Well, that's different," you'll say. "You asked what I'd do in their situation, you didn't say I'd actually become them."
But ... what's the difference?
We Know Empathy Is Good, But Are Still Selective About It
We've all heard versions of this from well-meaning progressive types. We're not to demonize criminals, because if we were saddled with their lack of education, opportunity, and role models, we'd sell Fentanyl to teenagers too. But does that also go for the racist social media troll? How about the animal abuser, or the guy who never tips, or the shitty parent, or the businessturd in the SUV who cut you off in traffic? Hell, how about the neglectful landlord or the corrupt CEO? Wasn't there was a whole article recently about how having power literally damages your brain?
If we truly would do the same in their shoes -- and I'll be damned if I can figure out how we could plausibly claim otherwise -- then on what grounds can we hate them?
On what grounds can we hate anyone?
I said in the intro that only 19 percent of millennials say most people can be trusted, but I'm thinking that about 100 percent of them think they can themselves be trusted. I mean, they may jokingly claim otherwise, but the moment you say something like, "I need that in writing, because I don't trust you, bro" they'll fly into a sputtering rage. Every one of us thinks we're doing our best, but assume that the world is full of people who aren't. How does this happen?
Well, to start, your personality is defined by two things:
1) The person you desperately want to be.
2) The person you desperately want to avoid becoming.
This is why teenagers pour so much energy into making fun of bad movies, or songs, or the weird clothes some other group is wearing. At that age, you probably don't know what you want to be, but you can definitely find things you hate. In fact, the final shape you take is usually what's left once you've chiseled away the stuff that repulses you (in your formative years, shame and disgust are the sharpest tools). So you grow up, watch a viral clip of some crazy lady screaming slurs at her Uber driver, and the next day you're extra nice to yours, proving to yourself that you're not that.
But a funny thing happens as time goes on: It gets more and more difficult to change yourself into the positive example you want to be. You find abhorrent parts of yourself that just will not chisel away. So you start looking harder and harder for more and more awful examples of other people. Soon you'll find yourself inventing and hating imaginary terrible people who must exist, have to, in order for you to maintain the illusion that you're not falling short.
After all, you certainly wouldn't do what they did if you were in their situation.
Which Brings Us To The Trust Crisis
Wait, isn't it possible that those polls just reflect reality, that people really are worse now? I mean, you're not worse, of course. Other people.
The thing is, though, they've been tracking these trust stats for decades. While only 19 percent of millennials today say the average person can be trusted, that number was more than twice as high in the late 1960s. You'll want to say that this is due to the rise of Trump and Nazis, but if anything, they are the result of the trust crisis, not the cause. This downward trend has been continuing since the 1970s -- here's a report from 1996 worrying about the same problem.
In that study, they boiled the phenomena down several factors: poverty/hopelessness (amazingly, rich people find the world to be a friendlier place), discrimination, personal trauma, divorced parents, detachment from neighbors (which is more common in urban populations), a lack of group memberships/activities, being unmarried (or in an unhappy marriage), and a lack of religious belief.
Well, how many of these have nothing to do with accurately experiencing the supposed shitty general public? Having divorced parents or failing to join a bowling league say nothing about how trustworthy other people are. The ones that do (experiencing discrimination, social rejection, crime) sure as hell haven't gotten worse since the 1960s. If you think it was easier to be gay, or trans, or black in 1968, then you should get a refund on your education. Hell, if you think it was easier to just be a weird nerd in the 1980s, I've got some goddamned horror stories I could tell you.
The change is in people's perceptions, not the reality.
In fact, when you change the poll so that instead of asking if "other people" can be trusted, it limits it to "your neighbors," the numbers double -- 39 percent of people 18-29 say their neighbors can be trusted, an astounding 73 percent of senior citizens say so. Which is to say, the closer you get to people, the more you realize they're not monsters. Likewise, while people (falsely) think crime is going up nationwide, most say they're not afraid to walk home alone at night -- numbers that have continued to get better over the last few decades. They can tell the actual neighborhoods they personally experience have gotten safer, but the neighborhoods that exist in their imaginations are goddamned hellholes.
I also don't think it's a coincidence that trust levels go up with education. College means being forced to interact with people, to take classes and live in dorms and do group projects. The actual reality of other people, experienced by being in the same room with them, is generally better than what you assume about them from afar. If you've read my other columns, you can guess where this is headed ...
We Have Built A Technological Asshole Filter
Entire books have been written trying to get to the causes of the trust crisis, and at least one song. You had '80s and '90s kids who grew up hearing that they'd be kidnapped and murdered if they left the yard (that tends to skew your worldview a bit). Then everyone was traumatized by 9/11, and then the global financial crisis several years later (or rather, they were traumatized by the relentless coverage of those things). But I'm going to add something to the pile.
I didn't coin the term "asshole filter" -- I think it came from this life-changing LiveJournal post -- but it's that thing where we inadvertently use the internet to filter out everything but assholes. Since we're all overwhelmed, we try to carefully ration our attention, but shitheads are good at getting attention and/or ignoring boundaries, so you wind up filtering out nice people until dicks blanket the landscape. When the wind blows, you can hear the sound they make: "LOL TRIGGERED MUCH?"
As I was writing this, in my Twitter feed there appeared a video of a guy abusing a cat, which I saw because someone I follow replied to the post to tell the guy he's trash. I don't know what percentage of social media traffic is that kind of "Look at this video clip of a random person you've never met, or ever will meet, doing something horrific!" but it's a lot. Social media is a steady parade of people walking up to you with putrid cups and saying, "This is so gross, you have to taste it!" I never turn them down.
There are more subreddits devoted specifically to this kind of "random nobody being horrible" outrage porn than I can count. Like PettyRevenge and ProRevenge, which is 1.1 million combined subscribers reading supposed real stories of horrible things done to horrible people. There's quityourbullshit, trashy, and cringepics (each over one million), cringe (700K), justiceporn (600K), publicfreakout (600K), IAmATotalPieceOfShit (330K), rage (315K), and hundreds more. Often you'll see the same outrage clip posted to dozens of them at once and for the most part, the targets aren't authority figures -- they're just regular people, behaving badly.
Mass media spent decades teaching our parents and grandparents that the world was full of serial killers and child kidnappers. Social media is teaching us that the world is full of petty, obnoxious, selfish, narcissistic shitwolves with indefensible political opinions. Evolution gave us the urge for social status, scores on social media satisfy that urge (32,000 followers on Twitter!) and outrage gets you higher scores.
And don't forget the other side of the coin: Almost half of young people say they've had untrue information about them posted online. At the rate society demands villains to hate, it's inevitable that we'll all get our turn.
Paranoia Is A Lie
I hope this was already clear, but let me say it anyway: A general lack of trust means your life is worse in just about every measurable way. In fact, you'll probably die sooner. Societies fall apart because of this. I don't care if you trust the government (you shouldn't), and if anything, we trust brands and corporations too much. But this much fear and loathing of your everyday fellow humans is toxic.
It's also just factually wrong. Saying most people are untrustworthy is like insisting most floors are lava. The world literally could not function as it does if that were true. Every day you trust the Uber/Lyft/cab driver to not murder you, the delivery guy to not spit on your pizza, your neighbors to not steal your packages, your bartender to not poison your drink, the Tinder date to not rob or murder you. How the hell could a site like Craigslist even exist in a world in which most people were raging pissweasels? Or eBay? Or Airbnb? Why are we all willing to trust online customer reviews when making purchase decisions?
All economies, governments, and social groups rely on the honor system to function to a certain degree, and always will. There isn't enough surveillance in the world to replace everyday trust.
"But yesterday I saw a video on Facebook of a woman cursing out a cashier because her McNuggets were the wrong shape! She wanted more of the boot-shaped ones! Are you saying all of those thousands of similar videos are faked?" No, I'm saying that if you saw that video, you should be forced to watch a whole bunch of other videos, of that woman caring for her mentally ill sister, arguing with her alcoholic husband, lying to her doctor to get more painkillers, praying to Jesus every night that she won't get laid off from her substitute teaching job, and then praying that she won't lose the house after the layoff comes anyway.
You should have to watch enough videos to realize that in her position, you'd have done the same.
Think of your lowest moment, the worst thing you ever did. Think of the people who saw it but know nothing else about you. You live forever in their mind as a monster, an example of why they think it'd be no big loss if a meteor wiped out life on Earth. You are the gross thing that they dwell on to reassure themselves that they're better.
When Social Trust Is Lacking, Authoritarians Seize Power
None of this is the result of a conspiracy. Outrage is as addictive as meth, and somebody is going to supply it, one way or the other. But the end result absolutely serves the purposes of some very power-hungry people.
If you're reading this, you probably know to be skeptical when a guy at a podium promises to save us from immigrants, terrorists, and street gangs. But a low-trust society is also one in which we call the cops when we see children unattended at the park, or when we decide that someone's Halloween decorations are too scary. A world in which we beg powerful people with guns to come and save us from every single person who is doing or saying something we don't like.
"You are surrounded by monsters" is always a grift, 100 percent of the time, no matter who the supposed monsters are. It is the wave that demagogues ride into power. They're the ones who'll protect you from the hateful, dishonest, entitled snakes who definitely live all around us. They'll promise to save you from the bullies and the trolls, they'll police the offensive speech, they'll blanket the world in cameras.
This, then, winds up being the ultimate irony. We think of ourselves as cool cynics, determined to never be tricked or betrayed, which leads us right into the jaws of the oldest scam in the book: "People are terrible, therefore you must grant all power to me, the only good person." They know that at the end of the day, you have to trust someone. Life isn't possible without it. Citizens' mutual hatred of each other just creates the void they'll happily fill.
The power-hungry know that isolated people make for easy pickings. There's a reason the first step in any cult indoctrination is severing ties with friends and family, and it's the same reason your workplace convinced you it's wrong to discuss your salary with co-workers. They know that we're strong when we band together. When we do, they work around the clock to find ways to split us apart, to make sure we're conducting endless purity tests so that 99 percent agreement isn't enough, to set a standard of behavior that no roomful of people can actually meet. "Have you heard the gross jokes those people over there were making? To think we believed they were allies."
Misery Doesn't Make Us Heroes
If you want to know what the poison looks like inside you, it's that endless fear of being taken for a fool, a terror of being betrayed that makes being alone seem like the better option. It's the fetishization of the cynical, detached "badass," the mockery of the wide-eyed simpleton who actually thinks most people are good, who dares to unironically enjoy things.
It's feeling like you're a failure if you don't scour the internet for evil and denounce it, the constant pressure to police every awful action and idea. It's the sneaking suspicion that anyone who tells you that things aren't so bad must have an evil agenda, that they must secretly want to stop the world from improving. "Of course you can say that, you're not suffering!"
It's the self-destructive superstition that says thinking the world is shit somehow makes us better people, while objectively making us act worse. It's the deranged belief that the bad people will win if we stop thinking everyone is bad, which leads us smoothly into the psychological mechanism that drives all terrible behavior: "It's OK to be shitty, because everyone is shitty and the advantage goes to whoever is willing to take it further."
At the end, we wind up with a world that is exactly as cynical as we always believed, and pat ourselves on the back for being right. Just know this: In this environment, those obnoxious, naive, positive people? They're the brave ones.
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