Trust, Violence and Congresswoman Giffords

The attempted assassination of Congresswoman Giffords in Tucson this weekend is related to trust.

I’m not talking here about interpersonal trustworthiness. Nor am I talking about polls and surveys about which institutions or professions are up or down in the public’s sentiments.

I am talking about what the academics call “generalized trust.” (See interview with Dr. Eric Uslaner for more on this). In a nutshell, generalized trust means our inclination to trust strangers, or to believe that people by and large have good intentions toward us.

That kind of trust is suffering a long, slow, secular decline (again, see Uslaner). And the Tucson tragedy throws it into relief.

Politics, Psychology and Violence

Some people debate whether the killer was politically motivated or merely psychotic, or some combination of both. From a trust viewpoint, I think it’s irrelevant.

Similarly, it’s also not always useful to debate cause and effect: did the shooter react to socio-political dialogues, or are those dialogues caused by events like Tucson? Does the media merely report polarizing events, or does its reporting contribute to the polarization? The answer is yes.

We have seen in the US in recent years an increase in the willingness to trust “someone like me.” This is not a good thing; it mainly means a decline in the willingness to trust other sources—media, advertising, business, government. We are a society that seeks trust in self-defined groups (think inbound marketing), while seeking protection from ‘strangers.’

High trust people feel in control of their lives and expect well of others. Low trust people feel that others control their lives and that “they” have bad intentions.

Add it up and what have you got? A society increasingly polarized with declining social trust, increasing micro-tribal trust (and its cousin, demonization of other tribes), and declining civility. My tummy tells me the odds of a Jared Loughner are increased, not decreased, with this cultural soup.

Drivers of Social Trust Issues

I find myself linking to Professor Uslaner several times in this post. “Congress,” he says, “is much like the rest of us—the incivility in Congress reflects the declining trust among the public.” Congresspersons clearly have a responsibility to role model more trustworthy behavior. The business literature is replete with examples of followers emulating leaders’ behaviors; Congress should read it.

The media are another key constituency. The old media is under economic attack from other media—blogs, tweets, YouTube—which offer far greater immediacy. We all lose when mainstream media start playing SEO games with headlines.

Business leadership is a critical part of the puzzle. Steeped in a 40-year ideology of competition, and seasoned with neo-Randian economics, business has come to believe far too much that all business is about doing battle with regulators and customers, confusing ‘ethical’ with ‘legal.’ The belief that everyone’s out to get you is not conducive to social trust.

What Pogo said is also true: we have met the enemy and he is us. I saw a blogpost today that was critical of Francis Fukuyama’s book Trust. Except that the blogger hadn’t read the book. He was suspicious of it because he didn’t like the title of another Fukuyama book—which, again, amazingly, the blogger had not read.

We accept far too readily emotional outbursts as substitutes for dialogue. The online comment columns on daily newspaper stories are full of graffiti—a (usually venomous) opinion with a name attached.

How to Restore Social Trust

Uslaner is very clear in his prescription. What destroys trust is corruption, economic inequality, suspicion, and lack of education. You may not like it, but the data show greater economic inequality and lower levels of education lead to lower social trust.

Leaders have to step up to the challenge of acting like leaders. The US Congress and politicians in general have done a conspicuously poor job of this. That Congresswoman Giffords appears to have been an exception to that rule simply draws the irony more sharply.

The media have to figure out another economic model besides emulating the tabloids and creating blogysteria. The Shirley Sherrod case was a lesson for anyone listening. Thus far, it seems like it’s been relegated to the archives.

Business has simply got to drop the selfish ideology it has embraced. Institutions like the Chamber of Commerce need to stop fighting government and begin working with it. Business schools have got to stop teaching ethics in one classroom and contradicting it in strategy classes down the hall.

And the rest of us: we all need, in our little daily behaviors, to adopt better manners. Civility. Respect. Empathy. Listening to the other person.

The link between an uncivil society and a society terrorized by psychotics is hard to prove, but not hard to feel. Aristotle suggested that actions arose from character and from thoughts. Combative people talking hard-talk are suborning bad behavior from those around them.

There are no quick fixes to trust. Seeing this as mainly an issue of better police protection would be a profound mistake.

9 replies
  1. Lance E. Osborne
    Lance E. Osborne says:

    Amen Charlie. And here’s wishing for a full and speedy recovery for Congresswoman Giffords and the others injured; and condolences to those who lost loved ones.

  2. John Gies
    John Gies says:

    Let me second the Amen,

    Charlie, I think you captured a large part of the variety of influences that are at work in a society that is becoming more fractured, (some would say more diverse as opposed to more tolerant).

    I think the media (TV, Print, Bloggers, Tweet and so on) have found that the more outrageous they sound the more hits they get. The more hits they get the more readers they can claim.

    There was a period it seemed, that government supported business and business supported government. Where the question was not, “what’s good for business or the citizen”, rather it was “what’s good for America”.

    Thank you for a well thought out post. And, keep banging the drum,


  3. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    “Uslaner is very clear in his prescription. What destroys trust is corruption, economic inequality, suspicion, and lack of education. You may not like it, but the data show greater economic inequality and lower levels of education lead to lower social trust.” (Charlie)

    I’m often curious when weather folks blame spikes in weather systems on El Nino.” My question always is, “Hmmm, what causes El Nino?”

    The answer to the question, both questions, is to look at what’s underneath both the weather and the social upset and to remember Einstein’s quote: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

    Most folks suggest that we have to change our state of mind (vis-a-vis, for example, about economics, education, ethics, corruption, and the like.) In order to do what? Trust? Be more civil? Not very likely. Why?

    Most folks derive their confidence, and, moreso, their identity, as a function of what they know. “I am my mind.” “My mind is me.” Change my mind? Hardly.

    Folks have to change their state of heart for us to experience any real change in attitudes and behavior. And heart change is even more challenging than mind change.

    Truth be told, how many folks’ hearts were hardened, became more defencive, more armored,by the Tucson event? More than quite a few I would bet.

    So, back to El Nino. Call it metaphysical, quantum physics, spiritual, whatever you wish, but thoughts are things; they are energy and this energy can be observed and can be measured. And, energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only changed in form (Physical science 101).

    So, how might one negative or hateful thought go out into the Universe, the Cosmos? What about one hundred negative, hateful thoughts? Remember they are energy and have an effect on all the other energy around us. What about a thousand, a million, twenty million, fifty million negative, hateful thoughts…every second, every second, every minute, every hour, day after day, week after week, month after month…negative, hateful energy spewing out into the Cosmos, the Univers – energy that cannot be destroyed but only changed in form – negative energy that has to have an effect on the Cosmos, the Universe. All those negative thoughts wrapped in negative palpable energy.

    Our Elders believed this, the Indigenous peoples believed this, sages and philosophers believed this, psychologists and psychiatrists believed (and still believe) this.

    Our culture is experiencing one gigantic negative psychosomatic state that evolves from one gigantic, collective angry, negative and hateful state of mind. And changing that mind is a major Sisyphean struggle.

    The antidote here is a change of heart. Heart is at the epicenter of true change in business, government, education, health reform, and the like. Not the “mind.”

    The question is what will it take for folks to open and soften their hardened hearts. Perhaps, “storms” of nature and “storms” among people will have to run their course before we, as a critical mass, choose to change our “killing” thoughts into loving and healing thoughts.

    What causes a Tucson? What causes El Nino? We “know.” But, that’s just a “mind” thing. Where’s the heart intervention?
    You quote Lincoln in your graphic. “A house dividend cannot stand.” Neither can a divided and broken heart. Social trust, love, compassion, inclusivity are all a matter of the heart, not the mind. That’s where healing begins.

  4. Barbara Garabedian
    Barbara Garabedian says:

    I ditto the Amens, Charlie.

    All that happened in Tucson is unconscionable. Perhaps what haunts me most is that nine year old little girl who only wanted to “see real politics” in action. What a sad, graphic commentary on our current society.

  5. Michael Holt
    Michael Holt says:

    I gotta say that a society that allows a random (reportedly unbalanced) person to buy a firearm with seemingly little effort, needs to take a hard look at itself. Where politicians in your society seem to garner support from publicly stating that henceforth they’re going to wear sidearms, needs examination. Where public mass shootings seems to happen over and over, and nothing seems to change as a result, needs condemnation. Even here in NZ, where the police generally are unarmed, we get the odd similar incident… but never so frequent, or with so many casualties. Your TV and movies are full of guns and violence AS ENTERTAINMENT (?!?) and its hard to see any virtue in your gun culture at all. ‘Trust’? hmmm… maybe, but whats missing is moral leadership around a point that’s been obvious to the rest of the world for a long time: America… when it comes to your fixation with guns… it ain’t the wild west anymore… grow up.

  6. Louise Altman
    Louise Altman says:

    Charlie – what an excellent post. You’ve pulled so many important elements together here – and AMEN (seems to be the operative word) for including the reference to the role of business and its reverence to competition. There is nothing wrong with healthy competition but in our experience in the workplace, the language of work is riddled with war, sports and “entertainment” metaphors that are destructive at many levels. Not uncommon to hear words like “enemy” and phrases like “take them out,” when describing competing companies and the products people are selling. This often at the same time that biz leaders are yearning for more engagement and trust. A massive disconnect here.
    thx again for this thoughtful piece.

  7. John Gies
    John Gies says:


    Great thought on Moral Leadership.

    I agree it is needed, my fear is who gets to define moral? It seems that there is risk in that there are a lot of “moral” leaders who want everyone to behave the way they say… Gay rights, abortion, gun control are all hot moral issues that have leaders from a variety of view points that want to lead us in different directions.

    There is I think however an opportunity for leaders to begin to think and act in ways that allow some tolerance of different view points. A leadership that allows for a fostering of discussion looking for the common ground to build on vs. the divisive ground to pick a fight on.

    Take Good Care


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