We can’t deny it. Our country was built on rebellion. And rebellion is the result of a breach of trust. When people flood the streets to protest for their rights to congregate or practice their religion, well, that is in our American DNA.
Our founding fathers did not trust the government, so they wrote checks and balances into the Constitution so it would be darn near impossible for tyranny to take hold. Three branches of government, the independent judiciary, a free press, the right to bear arms, freedom to practice one's religion according to conscience — enshrined in the Constitution because our forbearers didn’t trust political power.
Over the last 70 years, our latent distrust for government has metastasized into a terminal loss of trust that threatens the very idea of America itself. Public trust in government and our political leaders is at an all-time low. Religion has suffered its own loss of faith. The news has become farcical. Corporate self-interest disqualifies any action or opinion they promote. Finally, the scientist and expert no longer command unquestioned belief. There is nothing to hold on to anymore. The public trust is in a state of utter collapse. There is nothing, and no one left to believe.
It’s not only the bad behavior of our politicians or unprincipled corporate self-interest, or the unceasing cynicism of the media, but the damning effect of incessant digital digestion. We’re unable to parse this much information, from so many varied sources, and stay sane. It is no wonder that absurdity is the mark of Millennial humor. The world has turned incomprehensible and become nothing but an obscene joke.
Torrents of information, blazing into our eyeballs, unfiltered and untested, has overloaded our little brains and we can no longer sort it all out. No wonder GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) is on the rise! Sting said it best when he was still with the Police,
“Too much information running through my brain
Too much information driving me insane.”
That was 1981 and we were already reeling. The early eighties gave us cable TV. Since then we have experienced an exponential rate of change with the personal computer, the internet, smart phones and social media. I wonder what Sting thinks now?
There are endless news channels to get information from. Far from confirming our bias, they disrupt our confidence in the world. A simple search and you find conflicting expert opinions, leaving us more confused than confirmed. The entire process seems to demand that we become experts at everything just to keep up! That’s impossible, and we know it’s impossible, so instead we throw up our hands and give up. But there is no giving up, because the violations keep coming rapid fire and don’t let up. We are assaulted by the news daily and keep tuning in like a battered housewife! Held captive by corporate powerhouses, we’re waterboarded with new technology but love our captors, as if we had Stockholm syndrome. Social media and online gaming is like crack, our brains are on fire, we are being rewired, and we keep going back to the dealer.
We are gaslighted every day by our politicians and their propaganda machines in the media. It is utterly irrational. You can’t think your way through it, so you feel your way through it. The only thing that’s true is what you think is true right now. But we are no better, or calmer for it. Their propaganda makes us irrational, which in turn makes us part of the problem.
If you think you are too enlightened for this, think again. A little honest self-examination and you will find that you are holding conflicting positions too. Look at them as hard and critically as you would look at Fox News or CNN. That’s why your online conversations and comments on social media don’t convince anyone. We each have our own brand of doublespeak used to defend our contradictions.
Can’t imagine how others have retreated to nationalistic self-interest, pseudo-science, or conspiracy theories? It is not necessarily because they are more stupid than you (ok, maybe a few are); it is because our institutions have violated all the rules of trust. It’s because the world has become unintelligible.
A world without trust becomes unnavigable. No maps agree. The stars are out of place, and you are lost at sea. When that happens people chose their own way. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, every one to his own way.
This is a big problem. When a society no longer trusts the power structures it inhabits, it unravels. And we are unravelling. You can feel it. When we sacrifice truth for expediency, society suffocates. When petty tyrants make irrational and arbitrary rules the sickness spreads. Trust is like the immune system of a society. Our immune system is collapsing.
Sometimes I wish we could return to the past. To a time when we still trusted churches and civil leadership, back to the time when the scientist was the hero of the sci-fi movie, like The Blob! Those days are gone. Whatever may have been bad about those days — and some swear those days were bad — something about them seems better than this. Wouldn’t you trade your iPhone for meaning and a little simplicity? Like a hot cup of joe at the diner, your favorite girl by your side, and a bright future? Those dreams don’t die with the public trust.
If recent events have shown us anything, it is that we crave that simplicity and meaning. We want to trust again. We want to believe. Deep in our hearts I know, secretly we want all the noise and frenzied activity and adrenaline, and the cacophony of information to stop. We’d like to be hobbits in the shire, quietly tending our gardens and drinking our beer. Don’t think for a moment these deeply felt and unspoken desires will not surface. They will break out and reshape the world.
The Coronavirus may be a catalyst for change, but a change was coming anyway. It has to, because we won’t survive the way things are much longer.
Here are seven ways this crisis of trust may reshape our lives in the years to come:
- Rapid technological and social change will continue to disrupt our ability to parse the flood of information coming our way. This will exacerbate the trust deficit as we rely on emotional reasoning to compensate. Unable or unwilling to access enough available information to form a well-reasoned opinion, we will choose cognitive comfort and take positions that leave fallacies undisturbed. The result is that more information is making us more intractable, resistant to discourse, and…stupider.
- Expect political disorder. Quick to know when they are being played, Millennials have figured out that the old political systems have denied them their voice in politics and neither party is tracking with their interests. Abandoning traditional political parties, they will reimagine America. What might that look like? A renewed libertarianism where divergent communities live out their highest ideals while maintaining non-judgemental enterprise with others. Think digitally connected, locally sourced, interconnected, non-coerced.
- As a result, Baby-boomers and old-world conformists will feel threatened on an existential level, by world-upending ideas. Culture is hard-wired into the brain and abrupt change is a shock to deeply held values. Rethinking American life will feel like a complete betrayal. This poses a real threat to life and liberty and represents a flash-point for violence and civil confrontation. Unreflective and ill-formed protagonists who have no respect for the outgoing order will exacerbate this. Navigating this will require caution, patience and open dialogue on both sides for it to remain peaceful. This will be difficult while diverse opinions are being repressed. Everyone has something to lose.
- Lifestyle and safety will be a higher priority than money and possessions. The Coronavirus will leave a lasting impression on Millennials and Gen Z. Its rapid spread in urban areas, and their comfort with technology and working from home will speed a flight from congested city centers to places where they will feel less vulnerable and more alive.
- Religious experience will thrive and diversify in a culture that tries to reestablish meaning and seek stability. Churches that can present a compelling argument to win the trust of seekers will win. Evangelicalism will continue to hollow out in some places where the emphasis is on experiences, while growing among those who present a more counter-cultural faith. More people will turn to religious exercises across the spectrum as they look for greater meaning. Unexpected winners may be traditional churches, those rich in aesthetic, and offering more sophisticated answers to challenges of faith, while nurturing genuine community.
- Mental illness will continue to increase, compromising our social stability. Information overload will leave us overwhelmed and insecure, further increasing anxiety. Digital media will devour attention and debilitate self-regulation. The crisis in mental health will impair our collective interactions and how we govern ourselves. Fear mitigates against clear-mindedness, keeping us from making the kinds of decisions that ultimately lead to better outcomes.
- Uncertainty and insecurity will create a tipping point for authoritarian government or local adaptive capacity. When trust erodes, and insecurity expands, society loses cohesion. Some will resort to authoritarian means to manage the trust deficit. Others will propose a highly coordinated set of solutions, enlisting religious, digital, financial and political means, all for the common good, to control (manipulate) outcomes. Again, these solutions require a level of trust in short supply and that won’t return soon. Rejecting these solutions, other groups will develop local adaptive strategies in response to these stressors. As mentioned earlier, these digitally connected, locally sourced, interconnected, non-coerced communities will innovate to deal with uncertainty and insecurity.
Each of the points I’ve outlined bear a great deal more discussion. I do not intend to advocate for any of them, necessarily. I still believe that the principles we found the United States on are worth recovering. However, I also understand that our culture is not the same culture it was two hundred, or even seventy years ago. We have changed since then, and have changed dramatically over the last ten years. Where we go next will depend largely on how we work to recover trust and a sense of security.
Recovering breached trust takes a lot of work. It requires transparency. It requires that we prioritize righteous relationships — treating one another with dignity, respect, and compassion. We must open lines of communication and encourage the free exchange of ideas, working patiently with one another. It will require us to realign our priorities, valuing meaning and virtue over profit and power. Our use of technology will need to become more intentional and metered. Human beings have limitations, and we are bouncing off ours already. We may need to slow down the rate of change for the sake of the common good. This will fly in the face of profits but if we don’t, we will remain in a perpetual state of destabilising change and anxiety. It’s just not sustainable. We must honor our humanity.
Can we accomplish this? Can we reorder our existence in a way that honors the human person, the environment, personal freedom, ingenuity and innovation? Can we act in ways that are consistent with spirituality and emotional well-being? I’d like to believe, but I think only God can change us so fundamentally. Maranatha.