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Distrust Me, Please: We’d All Benefit

A study of the people living in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco finds it might be better for social relations to assume that we’re all essentially unknowable, and thus untrustworthy, than to assume the opposite.

By James McWilliams


Moroccans on their donkeys head to the village of Taghdouine to buy supplies for their remote village on March 5th, 2016, in the el-Haouz province in the High Atlas Mountains south of the capital of Marrakech. (Photo: Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)

We all know trust is good. It’s the social glue that fosters cohesive and productive relationships, sustaining healthy communities and fostering general happiness. The more frequently we interact as active citizens, the more interlocking dependencies that we establish, the more trusting we become.

A Pew Research Center report supports this claim. It notes how “many social theorists posit that the more connections that people have with each other, the more trusting they are likely to be.” The Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz summed up the benefit of trust especially well when he said, “trust is what makes contracts, plans, and everyday transactions possible; it facilitates the democratic process … it is trust, more than money, that makes the world go round.” We might be instinctively distrustful of government — you’d be crazy not to be — but when it comes to everyday social life, trust is sacred.

The overwhelming cultural affirmation of trust insinuates that it’s opposite — mistrust — must be anathema. But Matthew Carey, in his forthcoming book Mistrust: An Ethnographic Theory, questions this assumption. In doing so, he makes a compelling case for the benefits of mistrust. Although his research is rooted in extensive fieldwork done among peasants living in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, it could have important implications for how those of us living in modernized “Western” societies behave, interact, and understand each other.

In a series of email exchanges, Carey, who is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Copenhagen, discussed the finer points of his research, and offered suggestions about its wider implications.

The social mistrust that Carey identified among the small-scale peasant communities where he lived for several years was extensive enough to be considered a social norm. Few questioned it. Careful to note that “not everyone is consistently ‘untrustworthy,’” he nonetheless asserts that “an ethos of mistrust pervades large swaths of social life, from friendship to kinship to political relations” — at least in terms of the number of people claiming to mistrust each other.

This ethos of mistrust was endemic not only to daily social life in the polis, but on the familial level as well. Carey recalled one conversation he had with his “field sister” — a girl from the family Carey lived with—about the woman’s brother, who was working in a Marrakech pizza place. She wanted to know how much money her brother made. Carey had just visited him at the pizzeria and she thought he might have an answer. Her reason for asking Carey went beyond mere curiosity. Carey explained, “at the time he was remitting virtually nothing to the family, who were struggling financially.” When Carey asked her why she didn’t inquire herself, she said that she had done so, “but of course he lied to me: I’m his sister.”

This response — of course he lied — was not delivered with sarcasm. It was a serious comment reflecting a sentiment pervading social relations in the Atlas Mountains. “There is no trust,” Carey notes, is a “constant assertion.”

The assumption at the core of this pervasive mistrust is a refreshingly bold acknowledgement that “other people cannot be known.” There has been considerable recent research into “the radical subjectivity and experience” and the “opacity of others’ minds.” Carey deftly brings this research to bear on his own mistrusting subjects, who ultimately think it to be “impossible and immoral to read other people’s intentions, motives, and inner states from their speech and action.” The point is not that people should be mistrusted because they are scoundrels — not at all — but rather that they should be mistrusted because they are human and, therefore, “unknowable, inscrutable, and unpredictable.”

To Western ears such an assessment might sound dystopian. But consider the social implications of presupposing that a person is predictable and, therefore, worthy of trust. In a way, the presupposition itself is a surefire recipe for social deterioration. As Carey reminds us, “you only need to betray or mislead somebody once (or, as with the boy who cried wolf, perhaps twice) to become untrustworthy. Trust not only supposes, but actively demands reliability, and can be extremely unforgiving when it is not forthcoming.” Among the Atlas Mountains peasants, by contrast, people “are expected to lapse and sometimes fail: to betray their friends, break their word, and let people down.” They are, in turn, “more likely to be tolerant and perhaps forgiving of the fault.”

It might, in other words, be better for social relations to assume that people are essentially unknowable, and thus untrustworthy (again, not in a bad way), than to assume that they are knowable and trustworthy. The latter scenario — broken trust — is, after all, bound to occur and, in the process, slowly damage social bonds that are predicated on what the Atlas Mountain peasants recognize as an impossible standard of trust. By contrast, the expectation of broken trust establishes a precondition for easier access to forgiveness, a virtuous behavior that can only make social life better when the inevitable let down occurs.

Modern capitalist society thrives on predictability, and thus it seems incompatible with the Atlas Mountain logic of mistrust. But, as Carey observes, an element of that logic is quite consistent with the radical freedom of personal reinvention, a quintessential American ideal. He explains: “This form of mistrusting tolerance can, I argue, be seen, in a sense, as radically liberal in its acceptance of the other’s right not be predictable (the key generator of trust) or reliable and not to be bound by the actions and assurances of its past self. Mistrust, rather than being the necessary enemy of tolerance and freedom, can also enable them.”

Strikes me as an idea worth trusting.