Here is some bad news: Only 19 percent of millennials think the average person can be trusted. That’s a bizarrely, alarmingly low number. These may be the most distrustful people in American history. We need to get to the bottom of this.
5. We don’t consider the WHOLE situation
Think of the absolute worst person you know of, past or present. Now ask yourself: If you were in their situation, would you have done the same things?
You’re going to say no, because you’re not a serial killer or Nazi torturer or Alex Jones or whoever you picked. But “in their situation” means the whole thing. You’d have their physical impulses, any illnesses or personality disorders, their upbringing, their genes, any childhood trauma, all of the information that they absorbed over the course of their life – and only that information – and you would only be capable of processing it in the same way they do.
You’ll say, “You asked what I’d do in their situation, you didn’t say I’d actually become them.” But … what’s the difference?
4. We Have Built A Technological Jerk Filter
You had ’80s and ’90s kids who grew up hearing that they’d be kidnapped and murdered if they left the house (that skews your worldview a bit). Then everyone was traumatized by 9/11, and the global financial crisis in 2008 (or, they were traumatized by the relentless coverage of those things). But here’s another factor:
We use the internet to filter out everything but jerks. We carefully try to ration our attention, but jerks are good at getting attention and ignoring boundaries. You wind up filtering out nice people until jerks blanket the landscape. If you see in your Twitter feed a video of a guy abusing a cat, which you see because someone you follow replied to the post to tell the guy he’s trash – not sure what percentage of traffic is that kind of “Look at this video clip of a random person you’ve never met, or ever will meet, doing something horrific” but it’s a lot. Social media is people walking up to you with putrid cups and saying, “This is so gross, you have to taste it!” We rarely turn them down.
There are more of these “people being horrible” outrage porn groups than you can count. There’s trashy, cringepics, cringe, justiceporn, and hundreds more. Often you’ll see the same outrage clip posted to dozens of them at once. For the most part, the targets aren’t authority figures – they’re just regular people, behaving badly.
Mass media spent decades teaching our parents and grandparents that the world was full of serial killers and child kidnappers. Social media is teaching us that the world is full of petty, obnoxious, selfish, narcissistic jerks with indefensible political opinions. Evolution gave us the urge for social status, scores on social media satisfy that urge (32,000 followers on Twitter!) and outrage gets you higher scores.
And remember, almost half of young people say they’ve had untrue information about them posted online. At the rate society demands villains to hate, it’s inevitable that it will eventually be 100%.
3. Paranoia Is A Lie
A general lack of trust means your life is worse in just about every measurable way. In fact, you’ll probably die sooner. I don’t care if you trust the government (you shouldn’t), and if anything, we trust brands and corporations too much. But this much fear and loathing of your everyday fellow humans is toxic.
It’s also factually wrong. The world literally could not function as it does if that were true. Every day you trust the Uber/Lyft driver to not murder you, the delivery guy to not spit on your pizza, your neighbors to not steal your packages, your bartender to not poison your drink, the Tinder date to not rob or murder you. How could Craigslist, or eBay, or Airbnb, even exist in a world in which most people were raging butt-heads? Why are we willing to trust online customer reviews when making purchase decisions? All economies, governments, and social groups rely on the honor system to function to a certain degree, and always will. There isn’t enough surveillance in the world to replace everyday trust.
“But I saw a video on Facebook of a woman cursing out a cashier because her McNuggets were the wrong shape! She wanted more of the boot-shaped ones! Are you saying those videos are faked?” No, I’m saying that if you saw that video, you should be forced to watch other videos. You should watch video of that woman caring for her mentally ill sister, arguing with her alcoholic husband, lying to her doctor to get more painkillers, praying to Jesus that she won’t get laid off from her substitute teaching job, and then praying that she won’t lose the house after the layoff comes anyway. You should have to watch enough videos to realize that in her position, you’d have done the same.
Think of the worst thing you ever did. Think of the people who saw it but know nothing else about you. You live forever in their mind as a monster, an example of why they think it’d be no big loss if a meteor wiped out life on Earth. You are the gross thing that they dwell on to reassure themselves that they’re better.
2. When Social Trust Is Lacking, Authoritarians Seize Power
None of this is the result of a conspiracy. Outrage is as addictive as meth, and somebody is going to supply it. But the end result serves the purposes of some very power-hungry people.
If you’re reading this, you probably know to be skeptical when a guy at a lectern promises to save us from immigrants, terrorists, and street gangs. But a low-trust society is also one in which we call the cops when we see children unattended at the park, or when we decide that someone’s Halloween decorations are too scary. A world in which we beg powerful people with guns to come and save us from every single person who is doing or saying something we don’t like.
“You are surrounded by monsters” is ALWAYS exaggerated, no matter who the “monsters” are. It is the wave that demagogues ride into power. They’re the ones who’ll protect you from the hateful, dishonest, entitled snakes who surround us. They’ll promise to save you from the bullies and the trolls, to police the offensive speech, and blanket the world in cameras.
This is the ultimate irony. We think of ourselves as cool cynics, determined to never be tricked or betrayed, which leads us right into the jaws of the oldest scam in the book: “People are terrible, therefore you must grant all power to me, since I’m the ONLY good person.” They know that you have to trust someone. Life isn’t possible without it. Citizens’ mutual hatred of each other just creates the void the demagogues will happily fill.
The power-hungry know that isolated people are easy pickings. There’s a reason the first step in any cult indoctrination is severing ties with friends and family, and it’s the same reason your workplace convinced you it’s wrong to discuss your salary with co-workers. They know that we’re strong when we band together. When we do, they work around the clock to find ways to split us apart, to make sure we’re conducting endless purity tests because 99 percent agreement isn’t enough, to set a standard of behavior that no roomful of people can actually meet. “Have you heard the gross jokes those people over there were making? To think we believed they were allies.”
1. Misery Doesn’t Make Us Heroes
How are we poisoned? It’s that endless fear of being taken for a fool, of being betrayed, that makes being alone seem like the better option. It’s the fetish of the cynical, detached “badass,” the mockery of the wide-eyed simpleton who actually thinks most people are good, who dares to be a unicorn and enjoy things.
You’re a failure if you don’t scour the internet for evil and denounce it, and police every awful action and idea. Anyone who tells you that things aren’t so bad must have an evil agenda; they must secretly want to stop the world from improving. It’s the superstition that says thinking the world is garbage somehow makes us better people, while objectively making us act worse. It’s the deranged belief that the bad people will win if we stop thinking everyone is bad, which leads us smoothly into the psychological mechanism that drives all terrible behavior: “It’s OK to be evil, because everyone is evil, and the advantage goes to whoever is willing to take it further.” At the end, we wind up with a world that is exactly as cynical as we always believed, and we pat ourselves on the back for being right.
In this environment, those obnoxious, naive, positive people? They’re the brave ones.