Ideasroom

There’s no vaccine against distrust

An online form allowing the public to report lockdown breaches undermines the trust we have in each other - unhelpful in even the most benign of situations, and downright dangerous right now, writes Michael Macaulay.

On Sunday it was reported there is a high demand for New Zealand Police's online form to report lockdown breaches. This news should act as a red flag, signalling the potentially corrosive effects on public trust within Aotearoa that may occur in these troubled times.

Concerns have already been expressed that the online reporting system could lead to reduced public trust in the police themselves, especially within communities that have long felt a lower degree of trust to begin with. But trust in our public institutions is one thing, of far greater concern is the levels of trust we have within our communities.  

The new system potentially undermines the trust we have in each other, which is unhelpful in even the most benign of situations, but downright dangerous right now.

In 2016, I created the New Zealand Public Trust Survey for the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington. That survey is now into its fourth edition and has consistently showed Kiwis trust each other to do the right thing and to make informed choices. These levels of trust remained very consistent between 2016 and 2019, and our general levels of trust in people are broadly consistent with other sources of data such as Stats NZ’s General Social Survey.  

Yet trust is a delicate thing. It is both a relational and relative principle. Trust is built through relationships between individuals and groups and it rises and falls depending on circumstances. It is not static. Everyone can understand this principle. We have all, at some point, trusted the wrong person, the wrong group of people or the wrong judgement call, to our detriment.

I don’t doubt the online reporting system has been developed with the best of intentions. But it could very likely harm our levels of trust. 

The point here is not that it may encourage people to report their neighbour for a possible infraction, which may or may not be justified.

By far the bigger concern is in encouraging people to doubt and question their neighbour. It builds on the most negative emotions people are understandably feeling at the moment: sadness, despair, fear of an unknown and unknowable future. Giving those emotions an outlet can facilitate greater divisions.

The Prime Minister herself acknowledged this last week, when she publicly requested people not to act as local enforcers. Sadly, the new online reporting system allows people to do just that, with no small amount of impunity.  

Nobody knows anything in terms of the future of Aotearoa or the world. Although we will doubtless emerge into the sunlight at some point, we cannot know when, nor what that new day will look like.  But we do know we will always need each other. We are social animals, we have evolved to co-operate. We can’t do without a degree of trust and in this time of isolation, in which none of us can anticipate how we will collectively cope, we need to be able to keep those bonds of trust as strong as possible,

I am not attacking New Zealand Police for creating the online reporting system, nor am I attacking anybody for using it. But we all need to be aware that if this is our first port of call it can destroy social bonds that may take a lot longer to rebuild than we think. There is no vaccine against distrust.

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