Tony Montana in Scarface. (1983)
Fear normally leads to seeking to establish a distance between oneself and that which is feared. A fear culture can therefore undermine the trust many philosophers, theologians and sociologists consider to be one of the most basic characteristics of human relationships.
In The Ethical Demand (1956) the Danish philosopher and theologian K. E. Løgstrup suggests that
We normally meet each other with a natural, mutual trust. This also applies when we meet a perfect stranger. A person must first behave in a suspicious way before we mistrust that person. In advance, we believe in each other’s words; in advance we trust each other. This is perhaps rather strange, but it is all part and parcel of being a human being. It would be hostile to life to behave otherwise. We could quite simply not exist, our lives would wither away, would become crippled, if we met each other in advance with mistrust, believed the other person stole and lied, pretended and tried to deceive us. … But displaying trust involves self-surrender.1
Løgstrup considers trust a fundamental characteristic of being a human being, something we cannot live without. As such, trust is not something we decide to have but some thing that has already been given prior to any decision regarding gain or loss. Special circumstances must arise for it to be replaced by mistrust. Mistrust would not make any sense without a massive background of trust.
Every day we rely on other people in practically every situation we are involved in – that they do not serve us poisoned food, that they tell us the truth, that they do not try to swindle us, and so on. It may be that this trust is abused, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Without trust you would not be able to do anything at all. Imagine a day where you have to calculate all the risks that might come your way, and make sure of the outcome in advance. You would hardly make it out of the front door in the morning. A lack of trust has the obvious consequence that behaviour that presupposes trust will not take place.
The paradigmatic example of trust is that between two persons, though we can also trust animals, groups, social institutions and so on. It is possible to note an increasing mistrust of a number of institutions that previously enjoyed great trust, such as science and the health service. Practically every day, opinion polls are published about a loss of trust in some profession, organization, social institution and the like. Just as striking, however, is the strong increase in various types of security measures, such as alarms and security locks in the home, identity cards and passwords at the workplace, surveillance cameras in public spaces and variouscontrol routines in industry and public services.
Towns, which were originally built to protect the inhabitants from dangers from without, have themselves now become more of a source of fear than security. The cityscape is becoming increasingly shaped by various security measures, and in the course of an ordinary day you come into contact with guards, admission cards, door telephones, protective fencing and so on. The wall that is to protect one against what threatens ‘out there’ has even moved inside the walls of the home, so an industry now exists to protect us there too, by installing alarms, security locks and the like, to prevent intruders from coming in. Security equipment and services presuppose frightened consumers. Therefore there are also considerable economic interests involved in keeping fear in a population at a high level – and preferably constantly increasing that level. Consumers pay for these ser vices in order to be more secure, although it does not actually seem as though they become so. It is difficult to decide what is cause and what is effect here – whether the insecurity leads to all the security measures, or vice versa. It is most likely that they have an intensifying effect on each other. No matter which, it does not seem on the whole that increased investments in security give people an increased feeling of security. The home alarm system and the security locks confirm the image of a dangerous world. There is a constant search for more security, with standards always on the rise.
The finishing line never gets any closer, and the gap between the finishing line and the actual security level becomes in itself a source of insecurity. Fear and the striving for even more effective security create an increasingly vicious circle. The surveillance of citizens has become both more intensive and extensive than ever before. Ever greater portions of our lives have become visible to invisible monitoring systems. The uk has 4.2 million cctv cameras,2 one for every fourteen people. Many people are quite simply extremely willing to surrender much of the protection of their private lives in order to protect themselves and society.
All these security measures only make sense against a background of a general mistrust of the people around you. Trusting in your fellow human beings means that you feel secure when you are with them. When trust diminishes in a society, this results in greater social disintegration, with isolated and apprehensive individuals. Everyone is a potential danger to everyone else. Ulrich Beck has formulated it in this way: ‘Within the horizon of risk, there is not simply either good nor evil, but rather individuals who are more or less risky. Everyone represents a lesser or greater risk to everyone else.’3
The number of books where the explicit or implicit ‘moral’ is that trusting other people is terribly risky has steadily increased. One example is that of the security expert Gavin de Becker, whose book The Gift of Fear (1997) has topped the sales charts in the usa.4 On the cover it states that ‘this book can save your life’, and it intends to do so by showing you how to react to all the potentially dangerous individuals who surround each and every one of us in our daily lives. It deals in turn with violence at the workplace, in the home and when on dates. Not least, it focuses on how exposed children are. Admittedly, Becker stresses that we often fear the wrong things, but the main message of the book, even so, is that violence can strike any one of us at any time if we are not on our guard. There is much we ought to on our guard against, according to this book. Charm, for example, is very suspect: ‘Charm is almost always a directed instrument that . . . has motive. To charm someone is to compel, to control by allure or attraction.’5 One should also be highly sceptical of anyone uninvitedly offering to help with anything, since that person is sure to want something from you that you are not necessarily interested in parting with: ‘Remember, the nicest guy, the guy with no self-serving agenda, the one who wants nothing from you, won’t approach you at all.’6 The rule that innumerable parents have inculcated in their children – ‘Don’t talk to strangers’ – has also become a maxim for adults. It is hardly an exaggeration to refer to such a book as a study in systematic paranoia.
This mistrust is a recurring feature in much of the self-help literature about relationships. People one engages in an intimate relationship with are almost to be considered as constant threats to mental health – especially that of women. The titles of books by a writer such as Harriet Barkier speak for themselves: Lethal Lovers and Poisonous People: How to Protect Your Health from Relationships That Make You Sick (1992) and The Disease to Please: Curing the People-pleasing Syndrome (2001). We also have Susan Forward’s Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them: When Loving Hurts and You Don’t Know Why (1986) and Obsessive Love: When It Hurts Too Much to Let Go (1991), not to forget Albert J. Bernstein’s Emotional Vampires: Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry (2001). One of the classic contributors to the genre is Robin Norwood, with titles such as Women Who Love Too Much (1985), Letters from Women Who Love Too Much (1988) and Daily Meditations for Women Who Love Too Much (1997). A recurring theme in these books is the danger of ending up being dependent on another person.7 Many of the characteristics most of us would connect to a normal state of being in love become indications of something pathological, for instance, that you spend an awful lot of your time thinking about the other person or feel utterly crushed when the relationship is over. The underlying ‘moral’ is ‘Be careful!’. People you establish close relationships with can hurt you where it hurts most, resulting in your becoming an emotional cripple. After having read a handful of these books, most people ought to be more or less permanently ‘immunized’ against the desire to strike up any relationship whatsoever.
Trust is, of course, not necessarily something good – in certain situations trust can be most unwise. On the other hand, there are few things less wise than to go through life with a consistent mistrust of everything and everyone. The sociologist and philosopher Francis Fukuyama describes trust as a kind of ‘social capital’.8 He points out that societies and organizations that are characterized by strong internal trust have much greater success both economically and socially than those with low internal trust. Trust becomes more important the more complex a situation, organization or society is. Trust can function as a tool for handling unpredictability.9 Apart from the socially integrative dimension, it can be said that trust is a functional alternative to risk calculating and the like. To act on the basis of trust is to act as if a given rationally predictable future will come about, but without having carried out predictions on a completely rational basis. It can, however, prove most rational to choose this less ‘rational’ procedure, because making reliable risk calculations can be a highly resource-demanding activity. People who trust each other can interact with fewer hindrances than those to be found in a climate of mistrust, where a considerable apparatus of formal regulations and contracts has to be in place. To quote Fukuyama, we can say that mistrust increases human ‘transaction costs’.10 Certain things cannot be predicted, either, so the basic choice is between trust and mistrust – or paralysis of action. Trust makes human transaction possible in situations where a lack of reliable predictions would otherwise result in paralysis of action.
Løgstrup considers trust as being precisely an original phenomenon one cannot go behind for some more profound basis, and he writes: ‘Trust does not therefore have to be motivated or justified, as mistrust has to be.’11 I do not wholly agree. In a fear culture where trust seems to be strongly on the decrease, trust, as far as one can judge, seems to need a motivation and a justification. Such a justification could come from referring to a paradox about trust: one has a reason to display trust to a person, even though that person has not done anything that indicates one ought to display trust to him or her. The reason for this is that a person who is shown trust will willingly do his or her utmost to merit that trust. In a behavioural-psychological experiment at the university in Zurich where students were to allow anonymous fellow students to invest a given sum for them, and the students could choose between a transaction model where a lack of repayment was explicitly connected with punishment, a model where this was only implicit and a model where punishment was nowhere in the picture, it transpired that the group that chose the most trusting model – where punishment was not even a factor – got most money back of the three alternatives.12 Both trust and mistrust have a tendency to be self-fulfilling prophecies.
Mistrust gives rise to more mistrust partly because it isolates one from situations where a reflected mistrust is learned as a form of social intelligence. We often fear the unfamiliar more than the known. That can in itself be an indication that most things are basically not particularly dangerous once we become familiar with them. It has been demonstrated that we are more afraid of people of another ‘race’ than our own.13 Since fear has the function that we normally avoid what we fear, we will also have a tendency to avoid people of another skin colour, for instance, and there by have less chance to learn that they are not actually dangerous.14 Fear prevents precisely that which could cause it to diminish: human contact. Fear and mistrust become self-perpetuating.
Social fear undermines spontaneity as regards other people, and as such undermines social relations. A fear culture is, then, a culture where trust disintegrates. In a world that is increasingly perceived as dangerous, it is difficult to have trust – you want assurances instead. To explain what trust is, it might be a good idea to start with what it is not. An American philosopher gave a lecture on trust to top management in one of the usa’s largest companies in which he underlined the necessity of having trust in one’s employees. When the lecture was over, the first question he got was: ‘But how can we control the employees?’15 The question betrayed an attitude that is irreconcilable with trust. A person who has to be subjected to control is precisely a person with whom one cannot have a relationship of trust.
A viable society presupposes that there is a community in which all participants perceive themselves as having a moral obligation towards each other and in which they rely on each other.16 So Georg Simmel describes trust as ‘one of the most important synthesizing forces in society’.17 For the individual, the function of trust is the same as a hypothesis that is sufficiently tenable to serve as a basis for action. According to Simmel, trust contains an element of ‘mystical’ belief. He finds it difficult to give a closer definition of this element, describing it, among other things, as an ‘in between state between knowledge and non-knowledge’.18 In trust there lies an expectation as to how another player is going to act, but there is a leap to this expectation from the basis we have for it. According to Simmel, trust cannot be understood as something absolute – it will always be gradable, that is, one will always have a certain degree of trust towards someone.19
In his notes from prison written before being executed for partici pation in an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained that:
Hardly any of us have avoided being betrayed. The figure of Judas, who was so incomprehensible to us, is scarcely a stranger any more. The air we breathe is so contaminated with mistrust that we are close to succumbing. But when we broke through the atmosphere of mistrust, we experienced a trust that we previously had thought impossible. We learnt that if we had trust, we could place our entire life in another person’s hands; we learnt boundless trust, towards all the ambiguities our actions were surrounded by. We now know that it is only in such a trust – which will always be a gamble, but to which one gladly says yes – that one can really live and work. We know that one of the most despicable things that exists is to sow and spread mistrust, and that instead one must strengthen and promote trust wherever at all possible. For us, trust will always be one of the greatest, most rare and happiest gifts in shared human existence, and it aris es so fully only against a dark background of necessary mistrust. We have learnt under no circumstances to surrender ourselves to a scoundrel, but do so unreservedly to the person worthy of our trust. 20
Bonhoeffer realizes that trust always involves a ‘leap’, or an act of faith if you like. What he advocates, however, is a reflected trust that always has a background of mistrust. Trust, then, is always linked to a risk, whether this risk is perceived or not. There are various forms of trust, and they can be separated from each other according to how they relate to this risk.21 The first form of trust is what we can call naive trust – it is the trust we are all born with. Without such trust, to our parents and others, we would never be able to grow up. But this is precisely the trust of a child. As we grow up, we learn that this trust can be let down. We learn that trust can be risky. What I call foolish trust is a form of trust where, against one’s better knowledge, one ignores this risk. An example of this trust is the totally uncritical attitude members of a sect can have towards their leaders. The trust that ought to be cultivated, on the other hand, is reflected trust, which is always linked to the awareness of a risk, which always contains a trace of mistrust. Reflected trust is always limited and conditional. Reflected trust is possible only when the person who shows trust is willing to accept that there is a certain risk or exposure. When we show trust, what we assume is that this exposure or vulnerability will not be exploited.
As Simmel emphasises, trust always contains an extra rational element that he compares with mystical belief. It seems reasonable to assume that this extra-rational element is, to a great extent, emotionally based. Trust is, to a crucial degree, linked to one’s feelings towards a particular person, object, society – or the world as a whole. We can also say that trust is an expression of an optimistic view of reality, since only an optimist will have the belief in his or her fellow human beings that trust expresses. The trusting individual chooses to ignore certain negative scenarios – or at least assume that they will not take place. In today’s climate, however, the tendency is the opposite, to ignore the positive scenarios and to base oneself on the negative ones. In a climate of mistrust one is also less amenable to information that could indicate that a phenomenon is not as dangerous as one fears.22 Viewed thus, mistrust can easily become cumulative. We can say that mistrust becomes part of the habitual fear described in chapter Two. So it is also clear that trust is badly off in a fear culture. Fear has an undermining effect on trust, and when trust diminishes, the scope of fear increases. An increase in fear will also be the result of, and a cause of, a loss of trust.
A fear culture is no trust culture – and that has major consequences on how people relate to each other. Trust can be described as a ‘social glue’ that keeps human beings together. A society can, however, also be held together by fear, as we will see in the next chapter, but that is a considerably less attractive model.