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Oct 22, 2018

Making an effort to trust

In his famous 1993 book Making democracy work, Robert Putnam found that a democratic society needs a certain level of trust. American politics look fractured right now, but still most people believe that after all ballots will be properly counted, and that whoever loses the elections will step down without much fuss. No one had any doubts that the new Supreme Court Justice, no matter how much disliked, will assume his seat at the court and will stay there until he retires. It is easy to take these things for granted, unless you know about a number of other countries where such assumptions do not hold. The difference is not in how smart people are, but in how much they are able to trust the institutions. This is why conspiracy theories are so corrosive to democracies: every one of them diminishes the stock of social capital that makes democracy possible.

Paradoxically, democratic systems are also designed to maintain certain level of distrust, hence the idea of checks and balances. Trust is not the only game; it is a part of the balance between suspicion and trust. Conspiratorial thinking swings the system too far towards suspicion by casting doubt not on the politicians of parties, but onto the system itself.

The same is true for smaller polities like universities. The shared governance is designed for faculty and administration to keep an eye on each other, and yet it cannot function without some level of basic mutual trust. Conspiratorial thinking is destructive here, too and it makes fair and effective governance much more difficult.

How do you know if you went too far towards conspiratorial thinking? There is a simple test: If you assume that your counterpart is either evil or stupid, you have ventured too far. I know people who are evil or stupid or both. However, here, on a public university grounds, we are very unlikely to encounter either. Therefore, if the other party does something that looks suspicious, it always pays to assume some level of competence, as well as good intentions. Now, other people can be wrong or misguided, they can fail to see some consequences or aspects of the problem – that is not only possible but common. However, “they” cannot be complete idiots, nor are they doing it out of sheer self-interest, self-aggrandizing, or any number of bad intentions. The flip side of the “evil or stupid” test is this: if you believe “they” are in error, you’re still within the limits of democratic framework. People who err can therefore be persuaded. If they are either evil, or stupid – you are probably gone off the rails. Evil should be destroyed, and stupid should be removed from power and left alone. It does not make much sense to talk to either

I know all about the hermeneutics of suspicion and the postmodernism: been there, done that. These delightful critical tools can be very helpful in uncovering deeply entrenched injustices and absurdities. They just don’t work very well in the everyday governance of an institution where most people share the same values.

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