Trust, Authority, and Institutions: A Way Forward (Part II)

picture of sheet music

If, as I wrote last week, our minds are hardwired for connection and social knowledge, and yet many of the major forces in our society move us toward independence and suspicion of authority, what’s the way forward?

At bedrock, it comes down to trust. And the funny thing about trust is, in order for it to exist, someone has to start trusting.

Over the last six years, Ask Big Questions has trained thousands of college students as facilitators of community conversations, and this lesson about trust is one I find myself teaching a lot. In doing so, I often a story from my own life: From the time I was three years old, I dreamed of being an orchestra conductor. I spent many hours as a kid air-conducting to the New York Philharmonic or the Chicago Symphony on the stereo.

When I was 15 years old, I got my shot: conducting the short “Interlochen Theme” at my summer music camp. This was it, my chance to fulfill a lifelong dream.

But as I approached the podium, a troubling thought occurred to me: “Wait a second, what if I put my hands up but they don’t play?!” What if I waved my arms, but the players just sat there? What would happen?

And then I thought, “I just have to trust them.” I had to trust that they wanted to succeed just as much as I did, that they didn’t want to embarrass me. And more than that, they had to trust me: to move at a reasonable pace, to start when they were ready. And then I had to trust that they trusted me, and so on in a kind of mirror-house of trust-building.

That was a life-defining moment for me. (I actually wrote my college application essay about it.) It taught me that trust can only exist when someone starts trusting. And it also taught me what the social scientists I wrote about last week confirmed: we want, sometimes we even ache, to trust.

Now of course that example, while useful, is also different from of other parts of life in some key ways: It was an artificial environment of self-selecting people, all oriented around a common object (the music), with highly-defined expectations about performance. In our daily lives, that’s usually not how we think of society. In fact, we think of it as the opposite: we aren’t self-selecting, but rather we’re born into this; we don’t necessarily share a common object, text, or goal; and while we have minimum definitions of performance (things we shouldn’t do to each other) we don’t tend to have such an articulated sense of aspirations for our relationships (things we should do for each other) outside of more intimate relationships (family and friends).

But I think those elements are key building blocks of a way forward. What if we didn’t just accept a minimum definition of civic participation (e.g. Don’t break the law) and instead added some aspirations: Know your fellow citizens, including the ones who don’t live in your neighborhood; talk with them; create opportunities to come together for shared experiences; take care of each other. We actually do have shared texts: A Declaration of Independence, a Constitution, timeless works on civic engagement and responsibility by everyone from Aristotle and Locke to Danielle Allen and Maya Angelou. What if we could gather together to read and discuss those texts as communities? What if we could articulate our shared values, as well as our differences of opinion and policy prescription, with one another through conversation about these texts? What if we could nurture understanding of others and of ourselves at the same time?

Yes, it requires some artifice. People aren’t going to meet each other on the street and ask, “When you think about Lincoln’s Second Inaugural in light of the question, When are we free?, what policies does that lead you to support?” But music—orchestral, jazz, pop, you name it—also doesn’t happen that way. It requires planning, design, an ability and desire  to participate, and ultimately the willingness to trust each other and the process.

I don’t think that what I’m describing is so terribly new. If anything, I think it’s radically old. If we are to bridge this gap between our hard-wiring to develop trust and our social structures that chafe against it, we have some basic tools we can use: good questions, good listening, good conversations. It’s not rocket science. It’s music-making.