Taking Trust for Granted

While trust is experienced personally, it also happens within a given social context. Sometimes we take the context for granted. Other times, it intrudes on us in ways that make us re-frame trust.

Blog-reader Martin, a semi-retired general management consultant who now resides in the Caribbean, points out how things can differ when, for example,

…the laws are poor, enforcement weak (and politically influenceable), transparency is a dirty word and ethical behavior is tied up in a wonderful concept of ananci (simple translation is trickster and the basis of most ‘smart guys’). Religion is still a strong force for many people who are disgusted by what they see going on. So your points are fine in the context of the US but maybe less relevant as you decline in legality (and don’t forget while America is often a legal place it is rarely a moral place).

Marc Gunther wrote in Fortune a few weeks ago about Anwar Ibrahim:

…a rising star in Asian politics during the 1990s as Finance Minister and then Deputy Prime Minister under Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. But in 1998, after leading a campaign against government corruption, Ibrahim was thrown in jail on trumped-up charges and held in solitary confinement for six years.
He has since become an advocate for democracy, a teacher at Georgetown University, and honorary president of AccountAbility.

Ibrahim points a way between complete cultural relativism and some kind of standards. He suggests:

…business can tend toward cronyism, corruption and other poor practices in the absence of a free press, a vibrant civil society and effective law enforcement…Certainly there may be regional variations in how business is done, but accountability, universal human rights, an independent judiciary and a free press are not Western or Eastern values. They are universal values that we should all embrace.

George Packer, writing in the Nov. 13 issue of The New Yorker (“The MegaCity,” not available online), describes the shocking dynamics of what is now the world’s 6th largest city, Lagos, Nigeria. While Packer suggests that other writers (Stewart Brand, Robert Neuwirth) see in Lagos some exciting new patterns of social development, Packer vividly describes millions of people living in a social structure built on pure power relationships:

Every group of workers—even at the stolen-goods market in the Ijora district—has a union that amounts to an extortion racket…The patronage system helps the megacity absorb the continual influx of newcomers for whom the formal economy has no use…It amounts to a predatory system of obligation, set down in no laws, enforced by implied threat.

Those Nigerian “share my inheritance with me” email scams are not isolated events, but perfect reflections of this culture. High trust? Hard to see how.

Finally, there is “Pastor Ted” Haggard, a home-grown American who publicly and egregiously violated the trust of his family and congregation; “egregiously” because he was at the head of an institution which pointedly attacks drugs, homosexuality, and lying. As he put it, according to the AP:

“I am a deceiver and a liar. There’s a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life,” he said…”because of pride, I began deceiving those I love the most because I didn’t want to hurt or disappoint them.”

Low Trust and High Trust Cultures

Francis Fukuyama, in Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, talks about low-trust and high-trust cultures. It is not easy to go against culture, to trust someone in a low-trust culture. The essence of low trust is that the interests of oneself are seen as opposed to the interests of others.

How does Pastor Ted fit in here with the cultural issues? Because the cultural demands for moral perfection became unbearable for him, and he “began to deceive…because I didn’t want to hurt or disappoint them.”

Lying belongs right up there with corruption and blatant self-interest as a driver of low trust—they all drive a wedge between people. If someone lies to you the way Pastor Ted did, it means they have chosen to appoint themselves as managers of your life, with no input from you. Pastor Ted’s motives in such a case are unlikely to redeem his actions. In this regard, stealing, cheating and lying are all of the same cloth, that of opposition.


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