americans don’t trust each other

According to this article.

The best-known analysis comes from “Bowling Alone” author Robert Putnam’s nearly two decades of studying the United States’ declining “social capital,” including trust.

I’m tempted to read the book, though my reading list is already high at the moment.

Some possible reasons suggested have to do with income inequality, racial bias, and 24-hour news coverage. Let me propose another.

I’ve argued before that institutions that are too good might also degrade trust. To give an example, if your son gets into a fight with a neighbor’s son, do you and that neighbor get together and force the respective kids to apologize to one another and make up? Nope, not anymore. Apologizing is akin to an admission of guilt, one that could lead to a criminal charge and/or civil liability. A parent might call Social Services, the cops, or a lawyer. And the other parent might do the same out of concern that the one who contacts authorities first wins benefit of the doubt. This is a contrived example and may not typify this sort of interaction, but it nonetheless illustrates a point: we increasingly rely on institutions to resolve disputes with others to such a degree that trust in each other declines. Those institutions can be a friend or a foe, and we want them on our side. As these sorts of scenarios play out, others will learn: you can’t really trust anyone, and the one who calls authorities or a lawyer first has the upper hand.

A societal breakdown would force people to band together, though that outcome certainly isn’t ideal. I’d prefer something less dramatic than chaos to bring community back. And once order is restored, there’s no guarantee that feelings of community would endure anyway.

Other factors are no doubt at play as well. Fewer people attend community-oriented and spiritually engaging activities like church. More people might spend leisure time on the internet–not a place known for polite discourse.

I don’t predict any substantial change in our collective trust of one another, and so I’m not optimistic. But perhaps we can adapt to the times and learn to be content with a lack of trust, cultivate strong bonds with a small group of select friends, and learn to live in this brave new world. I’m optimistic that, if we accept our collective fate, we can find a way to adapt and thrive, regardless of our lost faith in each other.

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