How did we become so untrusting?

A look at the last 50 years shows a great deal of social change – and a great deal we should have misgivings about

Faith WoodI’ve been challenged by the content on social media (and televised news) of late. Several friends and colleagues are recoiling from it as well. It all feels so dramatic, so polarizing, so one-sided.

How did we get here? How did we become those people?

Did we stop trusting everyone suddenly or did the feeling creep up on us slowly?

I thought I’d reflect on the last 50 years and see if I could discover when the trend began.

I found a lot of examples of trust breaches, but I can only write so many words for this column. A few sweeping generalizations per decade seemed the least wordy means and although a lot relates to the United States, Canadians aren’t immune to similar thought patterns.

The 1960s was an era where folks began advocating for social change. The media began promoting the idea that everyone was entitled to happiness, primarily through material things. Fulfilment wasn’t something you worked directly for, but rather something you purchased (or was handed to you because of some turn of fortune).

“If you try to think where we went wrong, it was in delinking rights and responsibilities,” says Roger Conner, the former director of the American Alliance for Rights and Responsibilities. “People are fixated on their rights, but they have a shriveled sense of responsibility, so if they don’t have what they want, they assume it must be someone else’s fault.”

In the 1970s, the rights movement underwent a significant transformation. Changes in the U.S. legal system (such as a broader definition of negligence and a looser definition of an expert witness) resulted in many ridiculous court cases and an exponential increase in money spent on litigation.

Suddenly, people could blame almost anyone for their ill fortune, whether it was the refrigerator company that didn’t warn against strapping their product onto your back and running a race with it, or the variety of illnesses, syndromes, complexes and compulsions that popped up.

Almost any circumstance could lead to victimization, including dropping things on yourself or your mother having PMS while she raised you.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, North Americans became more dependent on social systems, and more people blamed their problems on anyone but themselves. In a trend reminiscent of Victorian times, people were diagnosed with illnesses that seemed almost made up.

In his book Diseasing of America, psychologist Stanton Peele writes, “By revising notions of personal responsibility, our disease conceptions undercut moral and legal standards exactly at a time when we suffer most from a general loss of social morality. Disease notions legitimize, reinforce, and excuse the behaviours in question – convincing people, contrary to all evidence, that their behaviour is not their own.”

By the 2000s, people had become fed up with overpaid CEOs and status figures who seemed exempt from the rules.

Giant corporations such as Enron and WorldCom were exposed for cooking the books, celebrities and politicians were charged for outrageous sexual misconducts and cheating the systems to get their kids into university.

Political campaigns began to feel more like television dramas as hopefuls took to social media and engaged in hours of apologizing for … everything.

We saw the entry of paid protesters designed to make issues look larger and rally more support.

And then came the world lockdown associated with COVID-19. What was supposed to last a few weeks has turned into months.

Is it any wonder we started questioning who and what information can be trusted?

The noise level on all medias is ramping up and making it challenging for any message to be trusted as objective.

Until we start having more respectful and objective dialogues, this trend towards mistrust is not going away.

Troy Media columnist Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications.

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