Toronto Star

Sunday, January 31, 1999

The failure of trust

We have given up on governments, organizations and people we once respected. What were once pillars of faith, icons we looked up to, betrayed us too many times. How on Earth are we supposed to cope?

By Leslie Scrivener, Toronto Star Faith And Ethics Reporter

Our daughter, who is 10, has been invited to three sleepover parties. We're looking at one another, her father and I, and asking a simple question: Do we trust the parents of her friends?

For years we have been inflexible - we've always said no. But as Romea grew, we've softened. We know the parents. They've become our friends. We trust them.

But our attitude remains. We are stingy with our trust - it takes years to earn and can be lost in a moment.

Should we let her go?



We're not alone in our lack of trust.

However we feel as a society about one another, increasingly we grow hostile toward institutions.

And, while we still may be willing to let individuals earn our trust, many of us have simply given up on the icons in our lives - the governments, organizations and people we once respected. They have, we feel, gone too far, betrayed us too many times.

Look at this list of fallen - or tottering - icons:


`We are less deferential because we believe we know as much about our political world as do our political leaders'
- Neil Nevitte
U of T political scientist


We trusted the Olympic committee to be good sports.

We trusted the Red Cross to provide safe blood.

We turned native children over to residential schools run by churches and the government trusting they would be protected.

We sent Canadian soldiers to Somalia and trusted that they would serve with honour.

We trusted that university students had the right to protest the visit of an Indonesian dictator to Canada.

In each of these cases our trust in Canadian institutions - government, church, health care, military - was betrayed.

People have failed us just as readily:

A Quebec judge convicted of money laundering; Ottawa Senators' captain Alexei Yashin, who offered a bundle to the National Arts Centre then took most of it back; Ben Johnson; Alan Eagleson; Catholic priests convicted of sexual abuse . . .

And then, of course, there are the many and varied presidents of the United States of America.

In a weary, scandal-scarred world, public figures topple like playing cards and we have reason to be careful of the icons in which we place our faith.

Loss of trust isn't new to our generation. History has proven the point time and again: The slaughter of young soldiers in the trenches of World War I, on the shores of Gallipoli; on the beaches of Dieppe in World War II; closer to our time, in the dirty tricks of Watergate burglars and the hollow promises of political leaders.

And in the past, private lives were protected, unlike today when it seems infidelities are revealed mid-act. Queen Victoria was still revered at her death after a scandal-free reign of more than six decades; Prime Minister Mackenzie King's oddball communing with the spirits was little known; and President John Kennedy's voracious sexual appetites may have been suspected but were not revealed.

Researchers have actually measured the decline in public confidence in institutions with a strong hierarchy such as the armed services, police, Parliament and the civil service.

Canadians expressing ``high confidence'' in government institutions dropped nearly eight percentage points to 29.4 per cent between 1981 and 1990, according to the World Values Survey.

The survey polled opinions from 96,000 people in 48 countries.

In the U. S., the drop in confidence was more dramatic - from 49.6 per cent to 31.8 per cent, a decline of 17 percentage points in the same period.

(Imagine what the figures would be today after watching Republicans applaud Bill Clinton for his State of the Union address, then, without taking a breath, continue their pit bull behaviour in the impeachment trial?)

University of Toronto political scientist Neil Nevitte, who analyzed the survey's data in his 1996 book The Decline Of Deference, found that over that same period there was even a slight increase in levels of interpersonal trust in Canada and the U.S. Half those surveyed said that, generally speaking, most people can be trusted.

``It's part of the transition to increased individualization and the push to the autonomy of the individual,'' says Nevitte.

Nevitte cautions that the survey did not study every organization, only those with strong, top-down, structures. He argues there is a push for more egalitarian relations everywhere and people have more confidence in institutions he describes as ``horizontal'' - the environmental movement and the women's movement among them.

Not surprisingly, then, of all the institutions surveyed, the military ranked the lowest in public confidence. In 1981, 18 per cent of Canadians expressed a great deal of confidence in the armed forces. By 1990 that number fell to 10 per cent and that was long before the Somalia inquiry.

``It's the hierarchy people don't like and it's part of a broad set of changes sweeping across industrial states,'' says Nevitte.

Higher education and access to information have made a more muscular middle class that makes us sometimes difficult to govern, he says.

``We are less deferential because we believe we know as much about our political world as do our political leaders - so icons fall very quickly.''

Richard Sennett, in an essay that is attracting comment widely, warns of the loss of the old-fashioned virtues of obligation, trustworthiness, commitment and purpose in the new economy. A young American with at least two years of college can expect to change jobs at least 11 times and change his or her skill base at least three times, he says. There's no reason to suppose the statistics are different for Canada.

While we may wish to foster the virtues of trust and commitment in our children and in our family lives, those virtues will conflict with the working world that emphasizes ``no long term,'' Sennett says. In this view, fleeting associations, projects instead of jobs, are the more useful ways of adapting to work.

`` `No long term' is a principle that corrodes trust, loyalty and commitment,'' says Sennett, a sociologist at the London School of Economics.

Others interpret the decline in trust as a product of the triumph of individualism, a quality being trumpeted in Mike Harris' new Ontario.

``All I do is take care of myself, it's us against them, at least in the United States,'' says Robert Lowry, director of the Centre for Professional Ethics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

``The anti-state notion has gone rampant and people don't think of the government as themselves.'' As a result, says Lowry, it's more difficult to find good people willing to work for the common good.

``So institutions suffer. If anything happens that doesn't meet with our approval, we attack or walk away rather than shore them up.''

In Toronto, city councillor Joe Mihevc also worries about the loss of trust. Formerly a university lecturer in social ethics, Mihevc said there was a palpable change in people's reaction to him when he was elected in 1991. ``I felt I lost a certain credibility. People were always doing a double check, looking at my motivations.''

We elevate people too quickly, he says.

``Being a politician, people either honour you unduly or demonize you unduly. The tendency is to make people saints or sinners when there's a shadow side to all of us.''

Much of the loss of trust in public figures is not only because we are less deferential, but because of our unparalleled access to information.

The media is always a guilty and easy target. Gone are the reporters who looked the other way when a public figure engaged in private acts with the wrong woman. But some still think the unrelenting openness of modern journalism is a positive force.

``The wonderful thing about our society is that so much comes into the open,'' says Rev. Brian Hogan, dean of the faculty of theology at St. Michael's College. ``I'm sick and tired of the Clinton business - it's a mess - but it's better things come out and are handled.''

Similarly, children are not so adversely affected by tales of betrayal far from their personal orbit, says Baruch Rand, principal of the Toronto Heschel School, a Jewish day school.

``They see society deals with it. The people were caught. The good guys came in and protected him or her. Society defended itself and it wasn't allowed to develop into a major cancer.''

Middle-aged Catholics still recoil when reading of priests who taught them or heard their confessions as teenagers, convicted and imprisoned for years of sexual abuse. You may not lose your trust in God, but surely you'd be forgiven for feeling cynical about the institution.

Or what about the man who, following one of the 12 steps in Alcoholics Anonymous, took stock of who he was, wrote down his deepest failings, secrets and fears, and, as required, shared them with only one other human being?

The person he'd chosen was a priest, someone he felt had electrified his faith and whom he admired.

But he read in the paper last weekend that the priest had a terrible secret: He'd abused boys for years. The priest pleaded guilty in court to many counts of gross indecency.

At first, the man felt stupid, that he'd made a bad decision by trusting the priest. But that changed.

``Now I think: The turmoil must have been unbearable. How can you talk about concepts like love, faith, tolerance, acceptance when you're carrying that baggage? How many other people, similar to me, were going through what I went through?

``Only then did I think of the children he had abused. What right did I have to sit and whine about the `devastation' I felt, when they had endured the unspeakable?''

What we see changing in society, says ethicist Margaret Somerville, is that we want trust to be earned rather than given blindly.

That's what's happening with the International Olympic Committee, she says. ``Blind trust - trust me, because I will look after you and know what is best for you - is (IOC president Juan Antonio) Samaranch par excellence. That sort of trust doesn't have transparency, openness or accountability and the world community is saying we want an earned trust.''

Despite our skepticism, it requires great trust to function in modern life, says Somerville, founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law.

``Think about it when you sit down to breakfast. You don't know what country the food came from, who handled it and what pesticides were used on it. Think about going up in an airplane. It requires enormous trust.''

Despite our own hesitancy, we're told we suffer as individuals and in society without trust.

``If you don't trust, you live lives of fear and anxiety and become very isolated,'' says Hogan of St. Michael's College. ``Look what happened in so many communist countries, where you dominated people by isolating them and developed a community based on ideology and fear.''

``The veneer of social trust is often thin, '' writes U.S. philosopher, Sissela Bok, author of Lying: Moral Choice In Public And Private Life.

``Yet trust is a social good to be protected just as much as the air we breathe or the water we drink. When it is damaged, the community as a whole suffers; and when it is destroyed, societies falter and collapse.''



My husband and I don't feel isolated because we are slow to trust. Perhaps we're a little out of step with society, perhaps too protective, but not much.

Romea will go to some sleepover parties, but not all. If we know the parents, and have had some contact - at their home or ours - over the past year, she can sleep over. But not often.

It's a matter of trust.

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