Why don't we trust anyone?

SALT is a small collective of writers from our Advance friends at Grace London seeking to engage with thoughtful Londoners on matters of faith and life. We believe that Godfirst and the people of Cheltenham would also find their weekly posts interesting. We reproduce them here by kind permission.

Why don't we trust anyone?

Let’s be honest. Not many of us trust salespeople. Whether it’s the cold caller, the shop assistant, or the luxury car salesman, we Brits don’t like it when we’re being sold to. Perhaps it’s because we dislike being pressured into making a decision or we fear being manipulated into buying something we don’t want. Ultimately, we know that salespeople don’t have our best interests at heart —they’re being paid to sell us something. They may be friendly, but they aren’t our friends.

However, our distrust goes beyond salespeople to include many of the significant figures and ‘institutions’ of public life. Surveys tell us our trust levels are at an all-time low. Our faith in politicians, journalists, and other prominent figures have all fallen dramatically over the past 50 years. According to a 2012 poll from YouGov, 37% of us trust our local MP, only 23% of us would trust those who run large companies, and only 10% of us trust the tabloid newspapers [1].

So, why don’t we trust anyone?

One reason is the sheer volume of competing voices trying to reach us. In 2005, The Guardian reported that the typical Londoner is likely to see 3,500 marketing messages in a day [2]. Perhaps this isn’t surprising. We’ve learnt to tune them out to some extent, but our lives are still filled with voices competing for our attention, trying to persuade us that we need whatever they’re selling. As the volume becomes overwhelming, we just want to shut our eyes and escape. You just have to watch people streaming out of Waterloo station on a Friday morning, amidst numerous free magazine vendors shouting their wares, to see that many of us feel harassed by the voices around us.

We’ve also been let down. We’ve seen frequent public scandals in recent times: in politics (MPs expenses), journalism (phone-hacking), business (Volkswagen’s ‘Dieselgate’, to name one), sports (FIFA bribery scandal) and religion (sexual abuse within the Catholic Church). All of which have damaged and undermined our trust in those in positions of responsibility.

Peter Kellner, President of YouGov, puts it like this: ‘[Multiple individual scandals] seem to have combined to create a growing impression that virtually all those in positions of leadership are cynically in it for themselves and less concerned with truth and the public good than they used to be — or we used to think’ [1].

Have leaders become more self-interested?  Has society become more dishonest? I don’t think so. Perhaps we’re just more able to identify the let-downs. Wonders of modern technology, combined with less deference to those in power, has given us a greater ability to see when our leaders have abused our trust.

Ultimately, I think we see more of the reality that was there all along. Our leaders, like us, are fallible. We as human beings let each other down; we’re far from perfect. No one is immune from this.

But where do we go from here? Who can we trust?

The primary way we understand someone to be trustworthy is not by what they say, but how they live. We’ve all met people who might claim to be whiter than white, but when you dig beneath the surface and see into the nooks and crannies of their life, they’re just as imperfect as the rest of us. So simply claiming to be trustworthy isn’t enough — we need to see it in someone’s behaviour.

Regular readers will know that we Salt writers are Christians, so perhaps you won’t be surprised that I’m convinced Jesus is a trustworthy leader like no other. But you might be surprised to know that it hasn’t always been this way; I wasn’t always convinced Jesus could be trusted.

As I read the gospels (the accounts of Jesus’ life), I am confronted with a man whose character shines through. His compassion for those around him, his concern for the poor, and the purity of his teaching continue to challenge me years after I first encountered him in these accounts. This character, coupled with his incredible miracles, convince me he was not just a good man, but God in the flesh.

Unlike the salespeople who want our money and the leaders who want our support, Jesus has demonstrated he has our best interests at heart. His willingness to lay down his life for the sake of humanity shows much more care for us than the other voices calling for our loyalty. His death wasn’t simply an accident of history or unjust ruling — it was a sacrifice which means each of us can be forgiven by God.

Jesus invites the people to follow him, but not in the way salespeople tend to over-promise and under-deliver. Instead, he warns people that following him could have major consequences for their lives. And yet, he delivers more than anything or anyone.

[1] From Peter Kellner’s YouGov article, ‘The problem of trust’ (Nov 2012)

[2] From Owen Gibson’s article in The Guardian, ‘Shopper’s eye view of ads that pass us by’ (Nov 2005)