Trust Me

Trust may be humanity’s most precious commodity. We rely on it every single day, in every aspect of our lives. We trust that the drivers sharing the road with us will obey stop signs and red lights, that the food we buy has been inspected and is safe to eat, and that when there is an emergency we can call 911 and the authorities will respond quickly. We could not function without this basic belief in our social institutions. And yet, this resource seems to be in shorter and shorter supply. As a society, we seem to be losing our collective sense of trust – in institutions, in each other and in the future itself.

A recent Pew Research poll found that:
75% of American adults under the age of 30 believe people “just look out for themselves most of the time”;
71% say most people “would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance”; and
6-in-10 say most people “can’t be trusted.”

David McCallumAs a priest and educator, David McCallum ’90, S.J., has been thinking a great deal lately about the necessity and fragility of trust. He knows that trust can wax and wane depending upon the historical moment, and said that “20 years of war, financial insecurity and scarcity of resources” have had a serious impact on people’s faith in institutions and in one another. This dearth of trust is complicated by the fact that Americans are regularly bombarded with various, and often competing, sources of information. We tend to believe those that most closely align with our own personal ideologies and ways of thinking and dismiss those that do not. It has come to the point that, as one former 2020 presidential candidate put it, “We aren’t even standing on the same field of fact anymore.”

“We live in an environment where if you disagree with someone else, it’s not just that they have a different point of view than you, it’s that they must be wrong,” McCallum said. “There’s a certain amount of cynicism, fear and judgment that come into play.”

And that can be dangerous. Without a basic level of trust and agreement on what is true and what is not, humanity will not be able to address many of the most serious challenges facing us, from the coronavirus pandemic, to climate change, to frayed police-community relations. But it’s not all grim, McCallum insisted. Even trust that has been badly fractured can be salvaged. It can be rebuilt by exhibiting consistent and reliable behavior. By bringing people with seemingly little in common together to work on a shared project. By acknowledging the internal biases we all hold. By being transparent in our behavior. And by learning to see ourselves in others.

“The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way,” McCallum said. “We have the opportunity to build trust when we make ourselves vulnerable to other people, when we expand the groups of people we come into contact with regularly, and when we open our hearts and our minds. And the advantage we have at a place like Le Moyne is that we are able to create an environment in which we can have meaningful conversations with people from diverse backgrounds and experiences. That benefits all of us.”

The work of building and expanding trust can, and often does, begin in college classrooms. After all, collegiate life often draws together people of very different backgrounds, ideologies and experiences, many for the first time. Le Moyne is no exception. Approximately eight years ago, a group of professors on campus noted that many students were having difficulty communicating with one another, particularly when it came to weighty topics, such as gender and politics. They seemed to be terrified of saying the wrong thing, or unable to control their feelings, or even unable to name or describe those feelings. And, according to one faculty member, “After a lifetime of virtual conversations, they were flummoxed by the mysteries of actually speaking to a real person in real time.” The faculty decided to tackle this head on, establishing a series of one-credit classes called Conversations in which students were encouraged to view conversation as something that can be both adversarial and respectful.

“We believe in the power of conversation, of sharing our ideas and stories with one other. But all of that comes with risk, especially when you don’t have the cover of anonymity or the luxury of editing your remarks,” said Ann Ryan ’85, Ph.D., professor of English, who spearheaded the program and taught a Conversations class centered on race and music in America. “Students need to understand that conversation is an artform, like playing the piano, and in order to perfect it you have to practice, even when it gets difficult. We want our students to respond to the notion that a conversation is a sacred compact and to treat other people in conversations as if they were mysteries in the process of revealing themselves.”

Among those who know intimately the importance of building and maintaining trust are Le Moyne alumni Wright Lassiter III ’85, Ryan McMahon ’02 and Cara (Fisher) O’Connor ’09. Their very work depends upon it. As the president and CEO of Henry Ford Health System, Lassiter leads a complex organization comprised of hospitals and medical centers, a health insurance company, retail and pharmacy, a research and medical education enterprise, and one of the nation’s oldest group practices, including a team of more than 1,900 physicians. But more than that, he is responsible for ensuring that the men, women and children who walk into one of Henry Ford’s facilities are confident that they will receive safe, quality, compassionate and life-saving care. In his role as the Onondaga County Executive, McMahon creates and enacts policies whose missions range from combatting poverty, to growing the economy, to developing infrastrucutre.  The decisions he makes materially impact the everyday lives of the county’s more than 460,000 residents. And as the publicity director at Good Morning America and ABC This Week with George Stephanopoulos, O’Connor is part of a team of professionals bringing news and analysis into millions of American homes every week. She is aware that many of those viewers rely on them for sound, accurate information, information to help them make important decisions for their families.

Each knows that a breach of trust can break almost anything a human being has built, and they have learned ways to cultivate and maintain trust. For Lassiter, this means depoliticizing science, and understanding that medicine has no Democratic, Republican, liberal or conservative bent; it means sharing critical facts and data with the public in ways that are neutral and free from politics. McMahon approaches building and maintaining trust by being transparent about the decisions he has made, particularly difficult ones, and communicating clearly with the public how he arrived at them. And O’Connor has found that consistency and credibility build trust among the members of her audience, as does ensuring that viewers see themselves reflected in news coverage, which is why diversity is so important in her field.

Like McCallum, all three believe that educational institutions like Le Moyne have not just an opportunity but an obligation to help build and repair trust, so that their graduates can go forward and be of service to their communities, whatever vocation they choose. “I am an optimist by nature. I believe that good wins over evil,” Lassiter said. “My sense is that trust may seem to be waning, but there are brighter days ahead.”