Along with the new year, the third Covid wave is upon us and the only way we can get to the other side is to get ourselves and our loved ones vaccinated, wear masks and follow Covid-appropriate behaviour and trust science to lead the way. Also, in the new year, the prime minister’s cavalcade was stalled on a flyover and some say this was a plot to target him by those fired by hatred. There are others, including those whose job it was to ensure the PM’s security, who say trust us, this was nothing more than a traffic jam. Common to both is trust, its crucial significance and the implications of its loss.
What is trust? It’s our firm belief in an idea, a person or, even, a thing.
Trust is the fulcrum around which our lives revolve. In infancy, we trust our parents as we stumble towards them learning to walk, a family trusts each other, neighbours trust each other when they switch their lights off. A society needs trust like glue, a nation depends on institutions and leaders it can trust. Political and social scientists have studied how the quality of a democracy is linked to whether its society and institutions inspire low trust or high trust. When trust erodes, things begin to crumble.
In our country where colonialism, feudalism, casteism have bred mistrust and suspicion, created inferiority and superiority complexes, where lack of opportunity and the absence of a level-playing field have celebrated the crooked shortcut to success, trust has always been in short supply. Today, algorithms on social media undermine trust by strengthening the walls of our echo chambers.
Yet, this new year there is hope.
Ironically, it comes from the market and technology. Certain aspects of new technology are forging new bonds of trust. So, while we distrust how our data and personal details are being used by big technology companies, we know and are aware how in our daily lives, technology has helped build trust. During the lockdown, we trusted apps that, in turn, trusted a network of delivery personnel to deliver what we need. One phone call, a credit card swipe, an OTP — OTP itself is a device to build trust — and in half an hour a stranger who has a name, a rating and, these days, a vaccination certificate, is at our doorstep with whatever we ordered. We collect, we unpack the bundle trusting that the seal wasn’t broken along the way.
The next morning, we trust our oximeters, our RT-PCR test reports, our vaccines, we trust brands, their products, processes, devices, technology. The market and our transactions also build trust.
We trust that the new 3BHK we have bought will bring us comfort and, who knows, happiness, too. We trust our workplace to be fair when it comes to appraising us, we trust our colleagues to be fair. At the restaurant, we trust the chef and waiter. Our food supply chains and hygiene, once notorious for their standards and unreliability, are today almost taken for granted. So we trust the process, we trust the brand, what about people? That’s where the problem lies. Trust has travelled towards a product, a service, a thing we have paid for, rather than the person or persons responsible for the product or service.
When it comes to people, it’s easy to trust a leader or a boss because they transform themselves into impersonal products and promise a better life, just rewards, and a system of fairness. So trust travels from products and processes to those with profiles and positions, with blue ticks and followers. The market, it seems, controls our interactions and quietly, effortlessly, we have undermined the most vulnerable and at the same time the most powerful aspect of human beings, their trustworthiness. For, we have divided people into various strata and clusters in the name of caste, class, religion, geography, even pin code.
Trust travels up the hierarchy but why doesn’t trust travel down? When the delivery boy drops off our favourite food on time, it’s the service we trust, its system of checks and balances, its GPS maps and rating systems, not the young man standing at the door. When the share-taxi driver drops us off and is polite, we give him a five-star rating but we rarely address him by his name, he remains the Uber/Ola driver. When migrants during the lockdown headed for home, they trusted their families in the villages, they didn’t trust the impersonal city or their employers.
Researchers have identified that in low-trust societies, ethical values are not shared and so the moral consensus is missing. An important aspect of such societies is a continuous decline in people’s social and political trust. If politics is to create an environment of happiness, oneness, trust will travel down. In 1947, an independent India was born and yet scarred by huge mistrust between two communities. Today, as we mark the 75th year of that defining moment, we see attempts to deepen that divide. A politics that feeds mistrust can get short-term gains but the fact is this politics is against the irreversible force of change. Because, as human beings, we know it’s easier to trust than it is to mistrust. To deceive, we need to weave, as Sir Walter Scott said, a web more tangled. So it’s far easier to trust. Anyone who thinks otherwise is on the wrong side of history.
Let this be our new year wish: Let trust travel, not only up, but down, too, left and right. It’s heartening that we have begun to trust some processes as part of our daily life. But it’s only when we begin to trust those who are less powerful than us, that we will increase our own trustworthiness.
This column first appeared in the print edition on January 13, 2022 under the title ‘In people we must trust’. The writer is the author of Being Good, Aaiye, Insaan Banein, and Ethikos. He teaches and trains courses on ethics, values and behaviour