Trust the Story?

Although as educated people we like to think of ourselves and others as rational — we aren’t. Most of what we say and do is only loosely informed by fact and logic. In reality, we self-construct a story about reality and then conform to it. Understanding how we do this explains our social and political behavior.

Our story is like meatloaf — it’s made of lots of good stuff: some fresh, some remnants, but all added to improve the end product.  The elements that go into our story include our cultural story, ideas we’ve acquired from our circle of friends, our education, and the random experiences of daily life. We embellish with fantasy to taste. What’s important to notice here is the lack of intentionality.  Life happens, we live it, and take meaning from it fairly aimlessly and without much rigor as to veracity.

Some of us seek to live examined lives and practice introspective disciplines, attend church, keep journals, and so on.  These practices help us to be more intentional about the story we become. Nonetheless, it remains a created story.

If you have ever tried to design a personal calling card you are aware of the difficulty of expressing your story succinctly. Resume writing poses a similar problem. What one word or phrase tells your story? (My card says I’m a “generalist.”) Our story is subjective, incomplete, and to some extent not fully known to us. Others do, in fact, see things we don’t see about ourselves.

Truth and Our Story

We need to share and agree upon some nuanced distinctions to explore how humans function without fully knowing. Words can have ambiguous meanings. Consider these terms and see if you agree with my usage:

Reality = Fact and science. It is what it is, and our experience doesn’t change it. Gravity pulls us even though we can’t see it or touch it or understand why or how it works. Perhaps we can never actually be fully informed with all the facts about reality. We can always delve further.

Knowledge = One’s store of information about reality.

Perception = The interpretive story we tell about reality, it evolves with experience. It is influenced by communication with others. It is always personal and subjective and sometimes shared.

Belief = An organizing principle we choose as our basis for action, usually constructed on fragmentary or even unknowable information about reality.

Assessments = One’s subjective personal analysis, interpretation and conclusions derived from perception, knowledge, and belief.

Truth = Our assessment of authenticity about a story. (A jury verdict is an assessment about a pattern of facts and whether they support the plaintiff’s story.)

Public Identity = The story others share about us as influenced by our words and deeds and their perceptions.

Many people confuse truth with reality and authenticity. When I say “The Earth is round,” most people would agree that’s the truth. There is abundant factual evidence. The astronauts have shared their personal experience to confirm this. We accept their reports and the body of knowledge about our planet’s shape as an authentic representation of reality.  But in another era, some would have disputed the idea.

Consider global warming. If I say “The use of carbon based fuels is changing the climate,” not everyone agrees that is true.  Anyone can dispute the truth of the statement. But there is an underlying reality, a set of facts, that are not changed regardless of what people choose to believe or deny. In the fullness of time, perception tends to converge with reality.  Just as nobody thinks the planet is flat these days, there won’t be divergent opinions about global warming in the future.

In this example, there are multiple stories about the facts of climate change.  One says it’s caused by people. Another says it’s a natural cycle. You and I choose to believe one of these stories not because we personally have weighed all of the available facts to arrive at a rational conclusion, but because we trust in someone or some group that assesses the story as authentic. I choose to believe that global warming is man-caused because I trust the story that science has verified that assessment.

About Trust

Authentic trust is forged through experience and knowledge. It’s not the naive trust that a child usually has in a parent, or that young lovers share. When I say trust is forged, I mean that it is hammered out, reshaped as it is put to the test of ongoing experience. A husband and wife of many years have seen good times and bad, endured separations, fought and made up, betrayed and been betrayed. She learns that he can be trusted to go to work and return home, but maybe not trusted to remember to get that quart of milk on the way. We trust our dentist to work on our teeth, but not necessarily to advise us on financial matters.

The dentist has a license, credentials, and a public reputation for his dental opinions and work. Our trust in a particular dentist is based on our faith in standards of his profession and our government’s vetting process and is tempered by personal experience with his or her conduct in practicing dentistry. Our spouse has a track record with us in myriad matters of daily life. Our trust is based on observed behavior and our emotional ties. We have a story that defines our perceptions about them as they relate to our needs.

We probably don’t know or care much about the character traits or values of our dentist outside of her practice. We only need to trust her in the domain of dental care. Her personal life is, frankly, none of our business.  We don’t need to trust our spouse in the domain of repairing people’s teeth. It’s not relevant to our relationship.

We grant or revoke trust based on what we expect from the person, and what others say that informs our decision. Expectations define the boundaries of trustworthiness.

Politics

In 2016 America discovered that political trust is not based on the candidates’ character, values, deeds, qualifications, or experience in office. The editorial boards of the nation’s newspapers weighed the facts about the candidates and 500 of them endorsed Clinton citing her qualities and qualifications and denouncing Trump’s character.  Thirty more denounced Trump but declined to endorse any candidate. Only 27 periodicals endorsed Trump.

2006 Presidential Endorsements Chart
Source: Wikipedia

Yet Trump won. The pundits have been debating what happened ever since. A common theme was distrust of Clinton and the perception that for all his many flaws, Trump’s voters trusted him to “shake things up” in our corrupt and dysfunctional government. Vast sums were spent in the effort to shake that trust.  Many, if not most, of Clinton’s attack ads were little more than video clips of Trump speaking.

The Trump public identity was and is a story that resonates with his followers. What he says echoes what they feel. Even attitudes that would seem to violate basic American principles of justice, freedom of speech, and equality are lauded because “he tells it like it is,” and he’s “not being politically correct.”

There were hundreds of instances documented by the press of Trump blatantly saying what he knew [or shoudl know] was not correct. Followers didn’t care that the facts weren’t right because he spoke “common sense” by their reckoning. He may have gotten the specifics wrong, but the spirit of what he said rang true. Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthy” to describe falsehoods that ring true.

Doug Muder, writing in Weekly Sift, dubbed these people “low information voters.” Others simply labeled them ignorant. What everyone seems to have missed: for these voters, Trump was more trustworthy than Clinton despite abundant rational evidence to the contrary. The expectation Trump fostered was for him to break the rules, disrespect and break with tradition, fight the status quo of an elite Washington club, and passionately express the seething anger of his backers. He was and remains bold, aggressive, and passionate. His strongman brag, “I alone can fix it,” and his can-do posturing inspires trust in those who have been outraged and frustrated. They trust trump to be a mythical superhero like the comic book Incredible Hulk character.

It’s a naive, child-like trust that focuses on what one wants. It’s fostered and by hearing what you want to hear, experiencing a like-minded kinship, and by seeing no better alternative to resolve what frustrates and angers you.

Confidence men exploit this human frailty — it’s why they are called “con artists.”  They craft a credible story, build relationship, cultivate naive trust – it’s seduction. It’s all about possibility. Fact and proofs are secondary. The meatloaf looks delicious, so long as you don’t examine closely what went into it.