“Social Trust” vs. Social Derangement–A Spiritual Problem: Debate Prep #3

“Social Trust” vs. Social Derangement–A Spiritual Problem: Debate Prep #3 October 10, 2020

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OK, I’ll admit it: I do not trust almost anything coming from the White House anymore.  I’ll start there.

But who can we trust, anymore?

I suppose for up to half of you, dear readers, I am now permanently labeled a Leftist extremist, a tenured radical, a never-Trumper fanatic. But if David Brooks is correct in his latest essay in the Atlantic, we have bigger fish to fry than just our feelings about the president or the White House. According to Brooks, America is suffering from a “moral convulsion” is which “social trust” of almost any kind is rapidly dissipating. In his account, social trust is “a measure of the moral quality of a society—of whether the people and institutions in it are trustworthy, whether they keep their promises and work for the common good. When people in a church lose faith or trust in God, the church collapses. When people in a society lose faith or trust in their institutions and in each other, the nation collapses.”

Social Trust, in other words, is a deeply spiritual problem. And David Brooks is a lot better at noticing it than solving it.

For now, together let’s see if the “presidential Debate’ season of 2020 is complete–or if there is more to come. But to say the least, after the last circus, whatever trust in the debates we previously had is now in terminal phase.  Another American institution bites the dust.  And it’s not just our political leaders whom we distrust; trust in just about everything has resulted in what Tom Nichols has called the “death of expertise”: a sustained attack in our culture against voices of authority. For Nichols, things have gotten so bad in America that “ignorance has become hip, with some Americans now wearing their rejection of expert advice as a badge of cultural sophistication.” Or, we might say: distrust is now cool in America.

Brooks writes, “Distrust sows distrust. It produces the spiritual state that the sociologist Emile Durkheim called “anomie”: a feeling of being disconnected from society, a feeling that the whole game is illegitimate, that you are invisible and not valued, a feeling that the only person you can really trust is yourself.” Now, among my students, distrust is reaching record proportions, along with anxiety disorders and a general hopelessness about the future. Suicide rates are also spiking. Durkheim worried that the breakdown of the ties that bind people together to make a functional society might lead eventually to a state of social derangement. Sound familiar?

Then, earlier this year and in the midst of an already skyrocketing pandemic of anomie, another, germ-related pandemic hit: sending mistrust (and anomie) to monumental levels. Brooks claims, “The emotional crisis seems to have hit low-trust groups the hardest. . . . Eighty-one percent of Americans under 30 reported feeling anxious, depressed, lonely, or hopeless at least one day in the previous week, compared to 48 percent of adults 60 and over.”

Even the Great American Populist (i.e. Bruce Springsteen) has recently let it slip out that he’s losing trust.  As The Boss admitted in a recent interview in Rolling Stone, he’s found the past few years to be a “very disturbing time.” “Overall, as somebody who was a born populist,” he says, “I’ve got a little less faith in my neighbors than I had four years ago.” Maybe that’s not such a surprise to some of y’all; but as a Springsteen Loyalist, this admission suggests we are entering heavy times, dear reader.

“Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” These wise words come not from Lincoln or Martin Luther King, but from a football coach, the late Vince Lombardi, builder of a great dynasty in 1960s Green Bay. How old-fashioned and quaint they sound to our anxiety-ridden ears of 2020!  And yet: isn’t commitment to a group effort–with that group being “America” write large–another way of saying social trust?

So many of us are getting very tired of being distrustful all the time. What do we do about regaining an American sense of “group effort”? How do we resuscitate the social trust that has previously been regarded as one of the great achievements of the American vision? Yes, it sounds sugar-coated, smarmy, possibly dangerous in its naivete. Cue Coach Vince Lombardi: c’mon, team, let’s get it together! Bob Dylan once sang, “You Gotta Serve Somebody”: I say, you gotta trust somebody too.

Let’s be honest: am I alone in wishing and praying for just such a revival of trust in America? Or, wishing and praying against further rise in the current state of social derangement?? Stay tuned…


Featured image thanks to Dave Lowe on Unsplash

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