Personal · Social Contract

Trust Me – Open Letter on Trust and Accountability

This is something older I’d written about people who reply with stock answers or pander to the audience rather than provide honest feedback. We hear things like, “Let’s call a spade and spade” and then those same people tip-toe around reality. It just came up again when my employer, champions of saying the right thing (and many a time doing it) followed a series of discussions about employee retention and millennials in the workplace by laying off scores of millennials in our workplace.

The aftermath was the usual series of platitudes and change management rather than a discussion about what or why exactly any of it occurred, leaving many with anxiety about their future and free to speculate about the true nature of what happened:

(Originally from March 8, 2018)

Today I read a report on Hope Hicks’ decision to depart the White House. A reporter for the New York Times, Maggie Haberman, said:

“She told colleagues that she had accomplished what she felt she could with a job that made her one of the most powerful people in Washington, and that there would never be a perfect moment to leave.”

That could very well be true, but I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a voice deep inside of me – okay, maybe not so deep – screaming, “Bullshit.” She testifies before a committee and confesses to telling little white lies for Trump, then announces within the week that her decision to leave was simply a career choice because she had nothing left to accomplish in that position.

My mind immediately turned to the #MeToo movement. Trump confesses to the Access Hollywood tape and apologises, but claims they are merely words and not a reflection of who he is before later suggesting someone faked the tape. Spacey confirmed that he was gay. Toback – okay, well Toback failed even to appear to apologise. Even Louis C.K., praised for stating outright that the stories were true rather than evading, never uses a word like “sorry” or “apologies” in his statement.

It frustrates me the way athlete interviews do. Game one is important to get out there and get that early lead. Game two is important to build momentum or turn things around, depending on how game one went. Game three is important….we get it. “It’s a team effort.” “We have to keep playing our game.” The majority of the time, most regular sports fans can tell you the gist of how an athlete will respond to a question before we hear it. And God forbid an athlete deviate from that script: “My teammates played like crap today. Fortunately I had a terrific night and was able to bail us out.” It’s a team effort – do not deviate from that script.

From there, I began to examine countless other examples. Something happens for which the public expects clarification and a statement appears with what one might call the politically correct response.

For me, it has become an epidemic issue of trust.

Let us return to the Hope Hicks story. With her statement, there is a spectrum of responses that fall somewhere between two extremes: Hicks is telling the truth or Hicks is full of shit and merely saying what she must in that situation.

Both ends of that spectrum present issues of trust and they all feed from the trough. We have enough collective understanding of what constitutes an appropriate response for a situation. Something happened and these are the list of socially acceptable reasons for it. When we hear that response from a person as often as we do, we conclude one of two things: 1) some of these people are lying or 2) all of these people are lying. We conclude this based on a layperson application of statistics that suggests, “This cannot be the truth in every one of these cases; therefore, someone is lying” and “if one person is lying, any number of these persons might be lying”.

That is, at what point are statements merely disingenuous responses designed for the express purpose of avoiding responsibility? And when that becomes the case, how do we suss out any of the individuals who might be telling the truth?

Let us return to the #MeToo movement. A man stands up in support of the movement and subsequently faces accusations of harassing or assaulting women himself. Then we receive the statement. “I don’t recall the events unfolding this way.” “Anyone who knows me knows that this does not represent who I am.” “I categorically deny these allegations.”

We have seen the epidemic of trust play out publicly in this arena over the last several months. #IBelieveYou. What if a woman felt scorned by a man and she saw the #MeToo movement as an opportunity to inflict harm on him by levelling baseless accusations in an environment where formal due process takes a back seat to social justice? What if one of these men was telling the truth that the accusations were false? Well, we cannot trust all of these men because we know harassment and assault are problems and someone is perpetrating them. (1 – See note at end)

It also highlights a second serious problem with trust. A man supports the #MeToo movement wholeheartedly but then encounters allegations. Now his tone changes to any one of the non-apology statements. “We need to hold these individuals accountable.” “Everyone makes mistakes, let’s take it easy here.”

We are seeing this phenomenon occur with greater public frequency now, too. What-about-ism. “Perhaps I did do that, but what about…” The implication in this argument being, “because everyone makes mistakes we cannot hold any one person accountable”. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Do not choose to hold me accountable for what I did unless you are prepared to hold everyone else, yourself included, for everything they have done.

This is where the statements work their charm. We might have that gut sense that the statement is disingenuous, but the statement is still the correct one for the situation. We cannot choose to isolate one individual for a lack of sincerity among the others and enforce the accountability because the evidence, if any exists, is not available to the majority of us. Do we treat them all as liars? Do we swallow that gut sense that they are disingenuous and hold no one accountable provided they say the correct thing?

This is my personal social crisis. It fuels my introversion and tendency towards isolation – a poor escapist approach to the situation, I know. Do I dislike people? No, not in the slightest. Interacting with people drains my energy because of chronic conflicts like this in my mind. What is my responsibility here to hold them accountable for their behaviour? Others must hold them accountable or, as stated earlier, everyone becomes accountable for nothing. However, I also acknowledge that I am more inclined to accept that from some people more than others. If a close friend admonishes a behaviour of mine, it carries far more weight than a stranger’s would. So what is our relationship and to what specific degree can I exert effective pressure on you to accept responsibility (if it’s at all responsible of me to do so in the first place)?

More specifically, how does one trust anyone? “Don’t touch me.” (extends finger to just outside the point of contact) Technically, I am not touching you, so you cannot get mad. We have blown that childish nonsense into a social construct of adulthood. Essentially, I can flaunt my disagreeable behaviour if I choose my words carefully enough or you fail to consider yours.

“That’s a hell of a way to go through life, James. Never trust anyone.”

Well, I did not say that (see – an ironic example of this very subject). What I am saying is that it concerns me, increasingly so, on a theoretical level is that even among the circles of people that I would say have my trust, if they were to breach the etiquettes of the social contract would they remain truthful with me or use their language to conceal it and avoid accountability?

The answer to this question, as I believe true of many social contract issues, is that the solution starts at home. The best remedy to the idea that a confidant would conceal truth from me to avoid the shame or inconvenience or other hardship is to create an environment in which I hold them accountable for their action without malice. The other person needs to know that they can do right by the situation (and do so with my support) and come out okay on the other end – because we do all make mistakes and they should not govern the rest of our lives.

The best way to accomplish that relationship is to start even closer to home – by taking punches ourselves. We need individuals who will own up to truths, however unpleasant they may be, and subject themselves to inappropriate, potentially unjust levels of shame or scorn and come through the other side. Then, once on the right side of things again, not use it to lord over others who commit mistakes. There will come a time when those who treated you so inappropriately or unjustly will commit their mistake and look to you expecting the, “Now is my time” smirk and hand wringing, to which one instead extends a hand of empathy and says, “Own up to it, make it right, and you will be okay. What you did was wrong but I am judging the action, not you. You still have my support (as, of course, would any victims of the action).”

That is the environment we need to foster for people and it will require leadership by example. (2)

1 – As a side commentary on this section, if a woman were to level a false accusation under the banner of the #MeToo movement, she would jeopardise the entire movement. We did not believe women who came forward with these accusations in the past and #MeToo marks the first time that society really began to listen. Providing an example where the accusation was false creates the same epidemic of trust where, “Well if she is lying about what happened, then it’s possible that someone could lie about what happened. Therefore, how can we trust any of these statements?” This is why I do personally believe the accusations without evidence. Because any evidence to the contrary threatens what they are standing up for and complicates their goal of justice.

2 – Imagine a football game where the quarterback completes a 40-yard pass to a wide receiver at the opponent’s 5-yard line. A defender nearby has the ability to prevent the touchdown, but only by grabbing the receiver’s face mask and whipping him to the ground, an act for which there is a personal foul penalty. The downside is the penalty of half the distance to the goal and a new set of downs, while the alternative is a touchdown. Given those two options, how many people can we trust to behave responsibly and not risk injury to the receiver?

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