I trust you

Publish date 29-12-2020

by Matteo Spicuglia

Trust shortens distances, but how?
We talk about it with Antonio Sgobba, journalist and writer.

George Simmel wrote in 1908: «Trust represents an intermediate state between ignorance and knowledge. He who knows completely does not need to trust, he who does not know at all cannot reasonably trust ». In an era of real and perceived distances, we can only start from here, but how? Antonio Sgobba is a RAI journalist. He has just published a book on the subject entitled The Trust Society: from Plato to Whatsapp (Il Saggiatore editions).

Today we are experiencing a profound crisis of trust in institutions, educational agencies, in interpersonal relationships, even we do not fully trust competence. Have there been similar situations in the past?
Confidence cyclically returns to crisis. We can find one of the oldest examples of a community devastated by mutual distrust in the pages of Thucydides. I invite the reader to take a step back two thousand five hundred years to return to Corcira, what is now called Corfu. It is the story of a polis struggling with what the Greeks called stasis: the civil war. The city was divided into factions and no one believed who was on the other side, the result was self-destruction.

How does one get to this point?
If we study the history of trust we observe how moments of crisis come when social inequalities deepen. The cause can be found in catastrophic events such as a war or a pandemic, but it is what happens even when the great scientific and technological revolutions arrive. A new technology or a new system of knowledge produces new inequalities: there are those who master the new knowledge and who do not, who owns the new tools and who does not. This is what has already been happening to us since the arrival of search engines, social networks and smartphones. Tools that have also revolutionized the structures underlying our trust. The risk in these cases is that those with less power and fewer resources feel excluded from society.

After the war, generations of different cultures and ideas were able to meet to build a new society. After all, they managed to overcome distances, to at least recognize each other. Today it is more difficult to do this. What has changed?
Trusting costs effort, it means accepting to take a risk and being vulnerable, it means recognizing that you cannot do everything alone but that you need the other. Many of us would gladly do without taking on all this: we would like not to struggle, not to risk, to feel invulnerable. The trouble is that today we have tools available that support this inclination, save us the effort and do it very efficiently. We delegate everything to apps and devices that do the work for us, the result is that we buy a more comfortable life at the price of a fatally less cohesive society.

If trust fails, here is individualism. Are we in it completely? What are the main factors of social disintegration?
As we have seen, this trend has ancient roots. The individualism that we can recognize today as dominant was also present in the civil wars told by Thucydides. At the basis there was an ideal deeply rooted in Greek culture: "To be the best and surpass others". It is a verse from the Iliad, but it is a principle that is also very present in our culture, it is the basis of individualism. The story of Corcira shows us what happens to a society when everyone thinks only and only of their own interests and believes that the common good does not exist or has no value.

Competence and a sense of responsibility are the other faces of trust. Why have they entered such a crisis?
There are two factors. The skills relevant to a company change over time. What we considered relevant up to ten years ago today may no longer be, an expert who has trained in an outdated system, if not updated, may not be trusted. But there is another thing that experts must remember: it is not enough to tell the truth to be believed. Even the competent must remember that trust is a relationship, proclamations cannot be made from the top of an ivory tower. Scientists, for example, must remember to have a public role and recognize as interlocutors even those without skills.

What is the way out?
Trust is a relationship, it always involves at least two actors. My attention especially goes to those who have more power and therefore more responsibility in this relationship. Politicians, scientists, journalists must ask themselves how they can be trusted again. A good first step might be to prove that you are honest.

Covid has eliminated many dynamics. A crisis can be an opportunity to become better, but that's not necessarily the case. In your opinion, what will the experience of the epidemic leave behind?
Here, too, a leap in Greek history of two thousand five hundred years ago can be useful to us. Fifth-century Athens suffered both a war and an epidemic. It is interesting to study how he dealt with the plague: political activity went on, democracy continued to function. The Athenians did not succeed in destroying common language and morality, but somehow continued to act cohesively. This was because they had developed a solid mutual trust, shared a conception of democratic virtues. It is not certain that an epidemic will come out worse, it is always up to us to choose how to deal with it.


Matteo Spicuglia
NP november 2020

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