Saturday, January 03, 2009

Public Trust

One of the criticisms offered for The Threat to Reason is that it states the obvious. The public already distrust the mainstream media, corporations and governments, so what purpose does it serve to argue that an enlightened society depends on a less trusting attitude towards these institutions?

Certainly the evidence is there, that the public are deeply sceptical of the same things that I am. But the responses to this scepticism are what interest me. Instead of asking whether it might be justified, commentators tend to assume that 'trust' is something that can be won back with more sophisticated communications techniques, that it can be restored if the public take a more adult approach to the complexities of policy-making, or if they give up their addiction to conspiracy theories.

In other words privileged commentators assume what they need to demonstrate - that powerful institutions are deserving of trust. They then take the public's refusal to trust these institutions as evidence for their intellectual or moral infirmity, or for ineptness on the part of those charged with informing the public. The language of Enlightenment is relevant here, since the public's attitude towards power is taken to reveal its benightedness. The majority will only be enlightened when they come to believe the same things as the privileged minority. They will be enlightened when they too take the claims of power on faith.

This supposedly enlightened position depends on a refusal to engage with the evidence. It is taken as uncontroversial that powerful institutions are trustworthy. If you internalise that assumption you are qualified to comment on the problem of trust. If you doubt it you are part of an ignorant and hysterical mob.

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