Who Do You Trust?
“Beware of the words “internal security,” for they are the eternal cry of the oppressor.” ―Voltaire
We all share a theory of mind, which provides us to with varying degrees of accuracy access what others are thinking, their beliefs, and knowledge. We survey the mental zeitgeist of others every day and rarely think what a special function this is and how it makes us uniquely human. We incorporate this insight into other people’s minds to determine their intentions and motivates for their actions. One of the most important uses of theory of mind allows us to predict whether we can trust another person.
Trust is a precondition to co-operation, and co-operation allows for collective, collaborative activity. The modern world as we know couldn’t exist without massive amounts of co-operation and ways to co-ordinate that larger collective unit for a purpose. Whether a new product, making a movie, solving complex economic problems, maintaining transportation systems, designing drugs, establishing institutions for health, culture, religion and, of course, waging war.
The fuel upon which the co-operation system runs is trust. The question of Who Do You Trust has been answered throughout most of history quite simply—Those Who Look Like Me. We trust members of our family, our circle of friends, our clan, and our tribe. Trust evolved because a band that was based on trust in its members to act on behalf on the band would be more successful than a band where no one trusted each other. Outsiders, strangers, Those Who Don’t Look Like Me weren’t trusted. The suspicion was such a person was dangerous. They had an incentive to betray you. It made sense over the vast course of the history of our species to kill strangers. In China, there is a sense of shame in distrusting. “It is more shameful to distrust our friends than to be deceived by them.” ―Confucius
Brutality is part of our neuro-wiring and no one has found a way to edit the coding that triggers violent reactions to outsiders. In the New Scientist, an article titled “Is Evil a disease? ISIS and the neuroscience of brutality,” sums up the nature of the problem:
Humans evolved as ultra-social animals, relying on group membership for survival. Our tendency to group together is so intense that just glimpsing a flash of colour is enough for us to affiliate with a stranger sporting the same colour. Cognitive neuroscientist Julie Grèzes, also at the École Normale Supérieure, argues that belonging to even such a small and ephemeral group determines how we perceive outsiders. We feel less empathy towards people outside our group, and we can literally dehumanise them.
Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature documents at length the homicide rates of early times was horrifically high. Perhaps one-third of males died a violent death. Pinker’s conclusion is that we live in the most peaceful of times and that the killing zone has been vastly reduced to a small percentage. After nearly two decades of terrorism have seen bombings in New York, Bali, London, Bagdad, Ankara, Mumbai, Bangkok, Paris, and Beirut, along with the upheaval resulting from the wars in Iraq and Syria, the impression is widespread that we are less safe.
Why are we more fearful than the statistics suggest that we should be? Eliezer Yudkowsky identifies part of the problem is highly human fallibility caused by ‘bugs’ in human understanding of the world called heuristics and biases. Our cognition is flawed but it doesn’t seem that way to us. We don’t feel or see a filter. That’s what makes it dangerous.
The instant communication through Social Media and the Internet filled with video footage and photographs causes an emotional reaction. We feel insecure. Governments respond with measures to make us more secure. Each bombing chips away more freedoms. It has been a meme that our fears are devaluing freedom in favour of security measures that can only operate if the space for freedom is reduced.
We are especially fearful of people who don’t look like us, who don’t share our beliefs or values, and who use violence to remind us exactly how vulnerable we are. Freedom is now seen as dangerous. Freedom is even seen by some as the handmaiden of terrorism. This will likely grow as the inevitable will happen—more bombing, more civilians killed in highly populated areas, a cycle of more retaliations followed by more terrorist attacks. More people Who Look Just Like Us lifeless on our computer screens.
The end of trust is the end of how we’ve come to enjoy freedom. In a simple formula: Distrust = Tyranny.
Trust like any other construct isn’t binary. Trust exists on an axis of highly unlikely to trust to highly likely to trust. How your theory of mind of the person you are dealing with will place him or her somewhere along that axis. Where the person fits is less a rational, deliberate decision than it is an emotional one. People Who Look Like Us is like looking in the mirror. As most people trust themselves, by extension they trust another looks like them.
This is our cognitive toolkit, and from it we make a presumption about how we related to and treat another person. We live in an environment filled with ‘soft targets’—concert halls, shopping malls, restaurants, office buildings, airports, train stations, hotels, and sports stadiums. Large numbers of people share this space. Freedom to move in and out of such spaces is something we don’t think about very much. When trust runs dry, the security arrangements make movement slow, difficult and cumbersome. Without security in place to check people, they may be too fearful to enter such spaces. They can’t trust an environment accessible to strangers who may wish to cause them harm.
The order of business is the same for the good guys and the bad guys. Many years ago, at the height of the Cold War, Johnny Carson hosted a TV show that captured the zeitgeist of the time: Who Do You Trust? The modern zeitgeist is a world order not unlike that old TV show. Only our Theory of Mind, which evolved over tens of thousands of years inside a world of small, isolated bands has experienced difficulty scaling to a world of 7.3 billion people. Our original Theory of Mind falls short once the numbers run into the billions. We’ve not had time to evolve to assessing trust in a world populated by billions of people. We are left with our Theory of Mind default. And that has caused major problems. When you can no longer trust strangers the world becomes a place where freedom is rejected and tyranny embraced. Dictators offer the remedy for lack of trust: security. And security against any risk from an outsider is highly valued. Rights, justice, freedom, not so much. They are degraded as constructs outsiders use to harm or hurt members of your tribe.
The evaporation of trust comes at a time of accelerated dependence. Rather than withdraw from those who invite suspicion, we draw them into a kill zone loaded with weapons, toys, amusements and stimulations.
Trust worked wonders when we are small bands of 15 to 40. Scale up to 7.3 billion people and the concept of trust bends and finally breaks. As you say of the rednecks in West Palm Beach, “well they looked like wetbacks.” That is becoming a universal value. You can’t trust them. Those whom you can’t trust, you fear. And those you fear, you push back across borders, into the sea, into the flames. Walls are built to keep strangers out. Navy patrols stop ships with strangers from landing. Refugee camps are erected like prisons to house strangers who arrive from war zones. Our Theory of Mind when it comes to trusting strangers, targets them as objects of fear. Because objects aren’t human, they are, obviously, like a rock, a thing; they aren’t one of us. Send in the drones and the marines. Kill the bastards. As if that will restore trust.
What this means is that what is left of freedom will be just about enough to see us through to the end of our lives. There won’t be much left over for the generations to follow. Large-scale accumulation of human beings breaks the tribal model and there is no replacement other than concentration camps and murder. Security has become the substitute for lack of trust. But the dirty secret in the aftermath of Paris is that security doesn’t scale any more than trust. And the lack of scaling is for much the same reason. It is one thing to check identification and bags at airports and sports stadiums but another to assume this precaution translates into lowering the risk of an attack. We sacrifice freedom in the name of high level intelligence gathering, storage, and analysis to identify those who would kill us inside a soft target zone. That’s a fantasy. A delusion.
We live under the umbrella of a massive surveillance or intelligence system that promises security in exchange for our freedom and privacy. Can this Intel Empire erect to plug the gap in our Trust deficient pinpoint in advance the next eight fanatics who will co-ordinate an operation that takes them to multiple public places in a major city and who proceed to blow themselves and others up? In the time of massive storage, big data, and data mining programs, we are still left trying to find a needle in a haystack. The vast majority of 7.3 billion people have no intention of murdering others. There are likely many thousands who are in a high probability category and capable on any given day of launching a mass killing. The problem is no one knows until the killings occur which of the handful will act upon the murderous impulse. Once they are known, the question is why didn’t the police stop them in advance? The answer is until the act occurs there is no way of identifying them in a large group of people with a similar profile.
It turns out most of the eight suicide bombers in Paris were French. They had French or Belgium passports. But they were ethnically different, their names different than most people associate with someone who is French. France like many Western countries is a rainbow of multi-ethnic groups. The same is true in China, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand to mention just a few. When the knee-jerk reaction of the Thai government is to tightened border and airport security, you start to understand people in position in power are either not paying attention to who were the bombers in Paris or they are using the Paris bombings for domestic purposes that benefit them.
Our literature, myths and fables are filled with stories of betrayal. From Shakespeare to Camus the theme of betrayal has haunted us.
“Et tu, Brute?” ― William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
“I used to advertise my loyalty and I don’t believe there is a single person I loved that I didn’t eventually betray.” ―Albert Camus, The Fall
If we define betrayal as the violation or abandonment of trust, we come closer to understanding the tensions of our current world order. The divide is not between left and right, red shirts and yellow shirts, labour and conservatives. The divide is between those who distrust and fear harm from others and those who distrust and fear powerful institutions tasked with providing security. What is the likelihood and cost of betrayal in each case? If we distrust institutions, we accept a level of murder for religious and political reasons can, at best, be contained. Institutions are confined to planning containment and implementation. That’s a vote for the “Let’s Build Walls” policy. The historical examples indicate this doesn’t work in the long-term. The barbarians climb over the walls sooner or later. Giving a blank check to governments is a risky business. The consequence of betrayal may provide overall worse outcome than the cold-blooded murder of 129 people.
What we don’t like to hear is the truth—there is no easy answer or solution to terrorism. People are angry because they feel betrayed by their employers, technology, leaders, and politicians. We can’t change our Theory of Mind when it comes to trust. Having achieved a population level in the billions, our ability to assess trust has broken down. No one knows how to repair it. We are left with disappointment, disillusionment, suspicion and fear. As we strive for a risk-free, secure life, we throw our lot with leaders who promise to punish those who harm us and protect us from attacks. With each new attack we will react with frustration and anger, ceding away more freedom until in the end what governments are defending against no longer really matters as there is no longer any difference between those who participate in official and freelance murder.
William Blake wrote: “It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.” Our circle of friends is dwarfed in a sea of potential enemies and forgiveness like trust is a shattered, hallow construct from a time long since past. We stand on the edge and we have no idea how far it is to the bottom where violence returns to pre-modern levels. Despite the rejection of change, there is no turning back. Just like there’s no way to build a bridge, hang a rope, or roll up a human canon to propel people to another side. We can’t be certain there is another side. Since we’ve come to distrust not just strangers but ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’ that contradicts out beliefs, and we respond by relying on myth and legend. Whatever happens next will influence how we think about number of interconnected ideas—freedom, security, power, religion, outsiders, trust, reputation and co-operation. When the dust clears it is possible none of those concepts will survive in their present form.