Cynicism and Trust

Cynicism and trust are competing forces.

These are mutually exclusive factors where the increase of one causes or contributes to the decrease of the other. With a cynical attitude, people withdraw from social relationships based on a larger sense of trust. As people withdraw their sense of trust, they lessen their commitment to acting trustworthy toward others and are less willing to put themselves on the line to help promote an environment of trust. Thus, cynicism replacing trust, society becomes atomized leading to the dominance of Social Darwinism and hyper-individualism.

Social trust exists in concentric circles: family, church, community, region, country, ethnicity/race, etc. Some societies have high trust cultures and others low trust cultures. All things remaining stable, high trust cultures are concomitant with and sustaining of high trust social organization. The same with low trust cultures and social organization. It’s a reciprocal relation. However, not all things remain unchanging.

The United States has a relatively high trust culture, although not as high as Japan and many Northern European countries. On the other hand, the US has some clear dysfunctions related to low trust. I think this conflict has to do with it being a large and diverse society, but fortunately with many citizens of ancestries from countries that are high trust (such as Germany). Certain US regions (such as those with low rates of German ancestry) have cultures of low trust, the Deep South being the prime example. This regionalism has created clear dysfunction on the federal level of government, but at the same time a high trust form of democracy continues to operate within certain local communities and governments.

The conditions in the US have changed greatly. This has shifted the level and extension of trust. These changes involve various balances of power – between: South and North, federal and states, elites and non-elites, left and right, etc.

Many Americans have lost a wider sense of trust. Partly, it’s just the inevitable atomizing destruction of community that results from globalized capitalism. But there is more to it. Modernity, in general, is about societal change: secularization, multiculturalism, urbanization, suburbanization, and many other factors. Humans have evolved to adapt to change, but this is more change than humans can collectively deal with in a healthy way.

This hits certain groups harder than others. The lower classes, of course, get the brunt of it and they also have the least resources to soften the impact. For reasons of psychological traits, conservatives deal with it the worse or maybe it’s that conservatives become the worst in dealing with it. There is nothing in the world that even comes close to the cynicism of a conservative turned reactionary.

We moderns so often take trust for granted, except when there is societal tumult or breakdown. Human nature is built on group cohesion which necessitates trust. Civilization magnifies this requirement of social capital. At the same time, the development of civilization has undermined what makes trust possible as an expression of human nature and human communities. Humans didn’t evolve in large, concentrated societies and so human nature isn’t adapted well to these conditions.

Some societies apparently have maintained their cultures of trust over the centuries, but modernization has made this increasingly difficult. The exceptional countries are those that have maintained some basic level of cultural (often ethnic) isolation, economic independence, and societal autonomy. This has mostly applied to Northern societies such as Germany and Scandinavia.

The US is somewhere in the middle on the scale of trust. We have many citizens who have ancestries from countries of high trust cultures, but we also have many citizens who have ancestries from countries of low trust cultures. This is one of the divisions underlying the regionalism of North/South. Germans and Scandinavians mostly settled the North. Scots-Irish, Barbadoans, etc mostly settled the South.

It’s interesting that early capitalism favored the high trust culture of the North and more recent capitalism has shifted increasingly to the low trust culture of the South. Capitalism is an odd system in that it needs a high trust culture to develop into large-scale international corporations, but capitalism seeks out low trust cultures to exploit for profits. So, capitalism uses high trust cultures for its own ends which ultimately undermines those very high trust cultures. The only exceptions to this seems to be extremely well developed cultures of trust that enforce massive regulation and social/moral control over the economic sector. The US mixed culture of trust/mistrust makes a perfect location for modern exploitative capitalism.

Of course, this is problematic for democracy in the US and many other countries.