I often wonder what future generations will make of this era in American history. Just as we reflect back on the Civil Rights era, the Greatest Generation, the Great Depression, the Roaring ’20s, what will be said of our time?
We are in a time period of profound mistrust. Others might call this era the “age of anxiety” — even the “age of anger.” But at the root of the rage and angst is a lack of trust — in our civic institutions, in the rule of law, the media, in our economic future and in each other.
No matter where you turn, it seems there is no trusted ground on which to plant your two feet next to your neighbors. Yet, for communities to be effective, mutual trust is the first step of building bridges between diverse viewpoints and pursuing a shared vision.
The public relations giant Edelman has been tracking trends around trust for more than 20 years. They call their findings the “Trust Barometer,” and leaders devour its report each January as if it’s a forecast of their own survival — and maybe it is.
In 2023, similar to the past few years, Edelman found government and media to be the source of the most distrust.
One’s own employer was deemed to be the most trustworthy. Given the recent bank crisis, the uncertainty of the impact of AI, job insecurity — heck, the state of the Social Security trust fund and one’s own 401k — that seems a mighty slippery rock on which to gain a foothold.
Even more concerning, we know distrust drives polarization. The Edelman survey findings on that score were startling — just 30 percent of those surveyed said they would help someone who disagreed with their point of view; only 20 percent would choose to live near them, and a mere 20 percent would work with them. Those numbers, collected globally, should scare us in terms of the future of our planet as much as climate change does.
A Stanford University center focused on social innovation noted in a review, “Trusted institutions are grease in the social machine.” And further, “Without trust, societies are at risk of chaos and conflict. They are less likely to create and invent.”
So where and how do we begin to rebuild trust?
The Stanford center suggests several steps for governments to take, including continuous improvement of the day-to-day execution of services, intentionally developing a pipeline of future leaders, practicing radical transparency, finding ways for citizens to be part of the solution and — perhaps most importantly — acknowledge there is a problem of trust in the first place.
That all makes sense. But how do we build trust with those with whom we have nothing in common, or fundamentally disagree?
I hear almost every day from otherwise openhearted people, “Oh, he or she is a Trumper,” as if that renders that person unworthy of engaging with at all. And Massachusetts isn’t some progressive groupthink nirvana where our neighbors are monolithic in their viewpoints, for which I am deeply grateful. Without diverse thought, there is no hope of creativity and forward progress.
A Pew research poll offered some hope. In it, 72 percent of those polled thought it was possible to improve the level of confidence Americans have in each other. When pressed on what specific actions an individual could take, one respondent summed it up this way: “Each one of us must reach out to others. Even people who are the same, but unknown to you, an individual may distrust. It takes interaction with people face to face to realize that we do all inhabit this space and have a vested interest in working together to make it a successful, safe and environmentally secure place to live. No man is an island.”
I recently participated in a leadership experience called Inner View, which involved, at first, sitting still — absolutely silent — in front of a camera for one minute. My image and that of the other nine people in the room were projected one at a time on a large screen. We knew nothing about each other, our backgrounds, our political preferences, our daily lives. We were asked to start from stillness and “no thing” and experience what was coming toward us, rather than focusing on what we were projecting.
I have much more to process about the impact of Inner View, but this one insight is worth sharing in the context of building trust. Looking at the images of these strangers, I was struck by our shared humanity. I knew nothing about them other than that. They were fellow humans. It sounds simplistic. And true. Yet I trusted them enough to allow them to stare at me sitting silently on a huge screen, entirely vulnerable. And they me. Perhaps, we can just try harder to recognize our shared humanity as a first step in building trust in our own communities.
Who can you trust? Sometimes the hardest questions have the simplest answers.