City City Bang Bang, Columns

The decline of collective trust?

Across the world, we have stumbled upon a truly vexing and quite a fundamental problem- we can’t seem to able to authoritatively separate the real from the fake, fact from opinion, expertise from motivated opinion. The world appears different depending on our belief system and every erstwhile fact is now merely someone’s opinion, and all opinions seem to carry the same level of validity. The idea of balance now accommodates gross untruths of the most obvious kind, and objective standards are difficult to apply any more. The problem is not limited to news, but is about all instruments of collective certification.

Perplexingly, this is a new problem. We have over the centuries, successfully built institutions that help manufacture collective trust. The judiciary, media, bureaucracy, academia- these were among several institutions that we reposed our faith in to act on our behalf. We believed in these institutions, more than on individuals that acted as its representatives. Who they were and what they believed in was not considered germane, although it is clear that like all human beings, they had their own views and feelings about many of the subjects they were adjudicating on. But we found it possible to grant them a neutrality of perspective, that we seem to have difficulty in doing today.

In truth, the belief in institutions is a little bit of a lie. We all know that institutions are not infallible, and that the opinions of individuals matter. But in an earlier time, we chose to go along with this small act of self-deception for the sake of a bigger truth. However, once we start attributing motives to institutions, and start dismantling our own method of creating certification in a world where there is little that is self-evident, we start unravelling a system of order production, without having a way to put it together again.

Across the world, this process has been in the works for quite some time. The fact that Supreme Court judges in the US have for quite some time now, been labelled as conservative or liberal and that their ideological leaning has a substantial role to play in determining fundamental issues relating to personal freedom, is evidence of this. It is telling that the recent problems in the Indian Supreme Court arose on account of the controversy around how cases get assigned to individual judges. The abstract idea of justice should in theory, be impervious to who the person pronouncing judgment is, but clearly that is far from being the case.

Experts of all kinds find that their opinion carries less weight than before. One ‘s ideas become seen as a product of either one’s interests, ideals, or background, and thus have little legitimacy beyond that. Ideas lose power in such a scenario for they have little intrinsic worth, and the argument shifts to motivations behind the idea rather than the merits of the same. An idea becomes attached to its address rather than its destination.

The fact that the elected leader of the world’s most powerful country can so blithely dismiss the dangers posed by global warming in spite of over 97% of scientists agreeing on the issue is a case in point. In the considerably less consequential but equally telling example of sport, a similar lack of faith in the human ability to certify events has been visible. Technology is now aiding and in some cases replacing human judgment. Part of the reason has to do with capability, but an important has to do with our inability to place trust in another human being. The fact that in cricket, we use referees that are called ‘neutral umpires’ gives away as to what our real concern is. All umpires, once they wear their white coats should be neutral, but it has become impossible to believe that this is possible.

There are reasons why this is happening. For one, the market mechanism, whose role in our lives has grown significantly over time, has put a price on any power that we might wield as certifiers. The media, judiciary, bureaucracy, auditors, teachers, academics, medical experts- none of these professions can escape the suspicion of being swayed by self-interest in order to express a certain opinion. The idea that everyone has a price has been demonstrated often enough for it become a default assumption.

Also, in the case of many institutions, there is the feeling among many that their power has been used only to certify a certain specific worldview, and the voice of a significant number of people has been delegitimised as being regressive or backward. Today, when new forms of media allow for those voices to be heard, the pent-up anger against some institutions, particularly the media is on display for all to see. On the other side of the ideological spectrum, identity politics of a particularly unforgiving kind has surfaced of late, and any opinion expressed today has a good chance of being framed through the race, class, gender, caste and sexual orientation of the individual. In this construct, our ideas cannot escape our origins.

As a result, we find ourselves at an impasse that we have created for ourselves. The future looks bleaker, for both politics and technology are helping reinforce this trend. The distrust in institutions is getting popular sanction through democratic mechanisms in many parts of the world. Technology is further helping blur the distinction between the doctored and the real. Conversely, there is talk that a technology like blockchain, which constructs trust not by building centralised institutions, but by distributing over a scattered network can potentially offer us a new mechanism of certification. It is possible that as we move to a world that is constructed around a newer set of conditions, we will need to imagine our social and administrative institutions differently. But, as things stand, we are heading towards a situation where we are discrediting the institutions that build collective trust, and creating conditions where only force determines who is right.

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