Increasing trust, reducing distrust

The Swedish-born philosopher and ethicist Sissela Bok wrote, “Trust is a social good, to be protected just as much as the air we breathe or the water we drink. When it is damaged, the community as a whole suffers; and when it is destroyed, societies falter and collapse.” In Guyana, while the PPP accepts there is a need for some more collaborative working relationship with the PNC to reduce our intractable conflict, it insists that some requisite amount of trust must first be present. If we accept as a working definition that trust is a
“belief in, and willingness to act on the basis of, the words, actions, and decisions of another”, then we posit that not only is trust missing between the PPP and the PNC, but that there exists a palpable, strong and almost volcanic distrust.
The difference is important.
No one would deny the benefits of trust in conflictual situations: trust between political opponents enhances cooperation, encouraging them to share information and even work together to resolve problems. This suggests heaven to most Guyanese. Distrust, on the other hand, is not merely the absence of trust, which may suggest a possible neutral, non-committal attitude, but the presence of the confident expectation that another individual’s motives, intentions, and behaviors are sinister and harmful to one’s own interests.
Distrust, rather than the absence of trust, has severe consequences for us. In interdependent relationships such as the one between the governing PPP and the Opposition PNC, this often entails a sense of fear and anticipation of discomfiture or danger. Distrust naturally prompts us to take steps that reduce our vulnerability in an attempt to protect our interests. Accordingly, the distrust of others is likely to evoke a competitive (as opposed to cooperative) orientation that stimulates and exacerbates conflict. Hence the state of undeclared war typifies the relationship between our two major parties, and reduces their mildest engagement to the hurling of vitriolic barbs.
The origin of their distrust is there for all of us to see. Starting from the sixties, when the PNC split the nationalist movement, the record has since not improved appreciably. This is even though, for years, the PPP of Dr Jagan offered “critical support” to the PNC that routinely rigged elections. So, what is to be done? We have to begin reducing the distrust before we can ever begin to build trust. We concede right up front that this is not an easy task. Once in place, distrust forms a powerful frame on subsequent events in the relationship, such that even good-faith efforts by the offender to restore the relationship are met with skepticism and suspicion. The result is a “self-fulfilling prophecy” where every move the other person makes is interpreted as additional evidence that justifies an initial decision to distrust him/her.
One key insight in this area of trust and distrust is the distinction between functional and dysfunctional distrust. Although distrust has generally been regarded as patently harmful, it should be acknowledged that there are potentially valuable benefits of some distrust. All of us have had experiences wherein we misjudged another as credible and trustworthy, only to be exploited. However, distrust can lead to adverse effects as well. As noted earlier, distrust is associated with a lack of cooperation, lower satisfaction and commitment, and possibly even retribution and actively hostile behaviour.
Distrust leads the parties to reduce their willingness to share information and engage in problem-solving in conflict situations — an approach that usually bypasses integrative, value-creating opportunities. Distrust can also cause conflicts to escalate to the point of intractability, as positions harden and the parties become increasingly reluctant to yield concessions. The negative emotions that emerge with distrust cause the trustor to vilify and demonise the other party – such as the Opposition’s “apartheid state” claims.
In 2015, even though the PPP filed an election petition against the APNU/AFC “win”, they went along and accepted their Opposition role. The present Opposition should start by doing no less to lessen distrust.