I’ve been following the analysis by pundits, partisans and pollsters about the recent November elections, especially the gubernatorial races in neighboring Virginia and New Jersey. Opinions and suggestions are all over the board, but one column started me thinking.
“Americans hate being told what to do,” wrote Kathleen Parker in The Washington Post. “And lately they’ve been told a lot: Stay at home. Stand apart. Wear a mask. Get a shot. Get the booster.”
She’s right. Americans, especially North Carolinians, have always been an independent lot. Many of us resent being told what to do. That said, how can we explain why we accept being told to drive on the right-hand side of the road, stop at red lights, wear seat belts, stand in line and abide by any number of other mandates? The real reason is that who is telling us is equally or perhaps more important than what we are told to do.
At the heart of the issue is trust. We will listen to and follow those whom we trust, and either ignore or disobey those we don’t.
It wasn’t too many years ago that when a government official, business leader, religious figure or anyone in a position of authority told us something we believed it. We knew that at some level they looked after their own best interests but we also, perhaps naively, believed they mostly acted in what was the best interest for most of us. We learned differently.
How and when did that change?
Our trust bubble was pricked in 1968 when Walter Cronkite returned from Vietnam and told us our military and political leaders had been lying to us. We weren’t winning the war in Southeast Asia. Cronkite reported we were “mired in stalemate” and he believed the war to be unwinnable. Yet another puncture occurred when Richard Nixon lied to us about Watergate. The Catholic Church's pedophilia scandals further eroded our trusting natures, as did revelations about corrupt political, business and legal deals.
In response, the media plunged full bore into investigative reporting instead of accepting carte blanche statements from those in authority. They were often antagonistic, looking for untruths and breaches of faith. Like the COVID pandemic, this attitude spread rapidly. We don’t know whom to trust and, sadly, we now approach most everything and everyone with the posture that we won’t trust you until you prove we can. That’s no way to live and no way to move forward.
Here are some thoughts to build trust: First, understand this is going to be a slow process. We must be open-minded and willing to stop dwelling on the past. We need to change our attitudes, going into relationships and situations with a posture of trust rather than mistrust. At the same time, we need to be vigilant and ask questions, letting people in authority know we are watching. And when people act trustworthy, we should reinforce and praise these actions.
To be trusted you must be trustworthy! Earning trust is more incumbent on people in positions of authority. Begin by recognizing the pervasive lack of trust, understanding that what you do behind closed doors is just as important as what people see. Honest communication is essential. Promises alone don’t count, you have to speak, act and live truth. Instead of covering up problems, misdeeds or failures you must be accountable and own them, explaining clearly what you are going to do to correct current situations and prevent future ones.
Trust is easy to break but hard to restore. But more trust is what we need today.
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He recently retired from writing, producing and moderating the statewide half-hour TV program "NC SPIN" that aired 22½ years.