How do people from different walks of life, diverse experiences, and varied points of view live together peacefully within a civil society? What is the main ingredient necessary for democracy to thrive? It can be boiled down to one word: trust. Civil society is built on relationships, friendships, and associations that foster confidence in one’s fellow man or woman.
Freedom and community flourish in a culture of trust, and we’re losing it. This has been happening for some time. We see it across the American landscape in varying degrees. The poor don’t trust the rich. Blacks don’t trust whites. Populists don’t trust the elites. Voters don’t trust politicians. Teachers don’t trust parents. Citizens don’t trust the media. Democrats don’t trust Republicans—and vice versa.
We experience so much distrust that we’re numb to it; we even expect it, and often we thoughtlessly feed it. After all, we don’t think the distrust being bred “out there” in politics and social media affects us in our daily lives. But it does, and it’s increasing, expanding. Like a disease, it’s now infecting our most foundational relationship as a people, the building block of a free, civil society—the relationship between men and women.
Demonizing Men Undermines Both Sexes
The breakdown of trust between the sexes is the tragic legacy of the modern feminist movement, but it has taken on a new fervor with the #MeToo campaign and the growing accusation that masculinity is vile, toxic, and inherently predatorial. Fear of men is legitimized, as accusation is treated as fact. Men are seen as “the enemy,” an embodied deviance that must be remolded into the image of a woman. Their sexuality is assumed to be naturally brutal, a threat to be controlled and reduced for the individual man to be considered “safe.”
While women’s willingness to hold men accountable for criminal sexual behavior is to be applauded, the scorched-earth approach we are seeing today is destructive because it undermines trust. When anything from a naive touch during a photo shoot to an innocent attempt at a kiss is compared to rape and sexual abuse, we are not healing society but infecting relationships with the poison of distrust.
Whether it’s in the workplace, church, or home, the interaction between a man and a woman is unique and primary to all other relationships. When a breakdown of trust happens there, when fear of the other sex becomes generalized, society simply can’t thrive.
Essential to the relationship between men and women is the sexual dynamic. For trust to flourish, this reality can’t denied, and it must be handled with respect, care, and honesty. It can’t be shut down. It can’t be abused, and one part of the polarity—whether it’s masculine or feminine—cannot be labeled toxic, brutal, or evil (as was done in the past by certain totalitarian religions regarding feminine sexuality). Once that label sticks, distrust is generated to the detriment of all.
If women believe that all men with their masculine sexuality intact are dangerous, there can be no trust between the sexes. Men are not going to become eunuchs, change and become like women, abandoning their natural masculinity just because women are afraid of it. It’s impossible, because this is their identity—it’s their nature and it can’t be expunged without destroying who they are as free individuals, as men.
The sexual tension between men and women will always exist, and if women assume a man’s sexuality is a threat instead of a powerful complement to their own sexuality, they will always be on guard. In this environment of suspicion, there can be no privacy between a man and a woman. If there is any kind of interaction or discourse, even if it’s not sexual, the man can’t trust that the woman won’t use it against him—so communication is silenced. Fear is generated on both sides, and fear is the death of trust. It is also the death of love.
Relational Distrust Feeds Social Distrust
When our most intimate and foundational relationships are ruled by fear and distrust, political freedom breaks down. When you no longer trust other people, you can’t rely on them for anything. They need to be monitored, controlled, and relentlessly investigated or watched. Distrust destroys democracy. You simply can’t be free when the components that make up a culture of trust are destroyed.
When men and women can’t agree on what is morally acceptable or even what is considered “legal” behavior, there can be no trust. When the lines are always moving, the rules always changing, there can be no trust. When dissent and a free exchange of ideas about these issues are silenced through threats and intimidation, there can be no trust. When accountability for certain behaviors is inconsistent because the standard is not moral absolutes but shifting power, there can be no trust.
A culture of trust doesn’t mean everyone in a democratic state trusts everyone to the same degree. People need a healthy “distrust” to survive, but this involves risk avoidance, not fear. For example, a woman doesn’t trust a man to meet her alone in his hotel room, not because of fear of masculinity, but because of wise risk avoidance in this particular case. Our society used to function in this capacity, with marked deviations in our history. But now, we are becoming ruled mostly by fear.
“The end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century is marked by a shift in the meaning of trust/distrust dichotomy in European and North American public discourses and in the media, and consequently, in human and social sciences,” writes Ivana Markova writes in “Trust and Distrust: Sociocultural Perspectives.” “Previously, the most common meanings of trust/distrust in democratic systems were dichotomies like trust versus ‘healthy distrust’ and trust versus risk. These are now amply complemented by the dichotomy trust versus fear.”
Totalitarian Regimes Incite Fear to Maintain Power
When we become socialized into fear, we communicate with suspicion, inauthenticity, and insincerity. These simply cannot exist in healthy relationships or a free society. This is why totalitarianism thrives on distrust. The only mechanism that can maintain order in a culture of distrust and fear is the all-powerful state. It is the state alone that can be trusted. Individuals cannot.
“The dichotomy trust versus fear has always been thriving in totalitarian regimes,” Markova writes. “As has been plentifully documented, the general strategy of totalitarianism is to induce distrust among ordinary citizens, neighbors, and even among family members. Moreover, totalitarian regimes institute an arbitrary persecution and punishment of citizens, and leave them in a permanent state of uncertainty. Under such regimes nobody knows whether, when, and why they might be called to present themselves at, what can be named, the court of injustice.”
As this applies to men and women in an environment of suspicion, men never know when they will be presented at the court of injustice as a “sexual abuser.” Men will be guarded about every word, every action, and live in fear of a woman’s accusation. Communication is shut down or curbed. No one is real with one another. Harmless flirting is stifled. The seeds of intimacy crushed. The organic becomes plastic. Relationships are broken, and there is no interest in becoming active in the lives of others. Love is eradicated and fear takes its place. Yet humans were not meant to live caged by fear.
“A permanent state of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty is associated with dehumanizing social and psychological states, like the loss of dignity, the crisis of identity resulting from adaptation to totalitarianism, passivity, non-involvement, and noncommunication,” Markova writes. “Inducement of uncertainty, of distrust in communication and propagation of fear, all help to maintain the stability of the totalitarian regime.”
The Opposite of Fear Is Faith
We must have faith in one another if we want to be free and happy. Faith means we don’t always know everything about the other person. Faith means we might be fooled, hurt, or abused. Faith is beyond reason, though not unreasonable. It is the essence of trust, as our knowledge of others is limited. We have to live by faith in our fellow man, or we will be isolated from one another.
“Without the general trust that people have in each other, society itself would disintegrate,” writes German sociologist Georg Simmel, “for very few relationships are based entirely upon what is known with certainty about another person, and very few relationships would endure if trust were not as strong as, or stronger than, rational proof or personal observation.”
We, as a society, need to pause and take a serious look at ourselves. Are we cultivating a society of fear or trust? Some might say restoring trust through accountability is one of the goals of the #MeToo movement. I would agree—criminality and abuse in any form, whether lying, stealing, murder, or rape, is an attack on civil society. These are an abuse of trust.
But we are moving beyond merely holding individuals accountable for criminal or abusive behavior to policing masculinity itself. Men as a stigmatized group have become the target. Many people are worried about sex being policed as a result of the sexual harassment witch-hunt, but the act of sex is not the issue here. The relationship between men and women is. What we’re losing isn’t sexual freedom, but relational freedom and the trust that undergirds it.
‘You Will Be Hollow’
We need to wake up and see that we are running down a path to self-destruction. Whether it’s our behavior on social media, our rejection of reasoned debate for violence and intimidation, our exploitation of racial and sexual tensions, or our willingness to stigmatize others simply to elevate ourselves and empower our own positions, we must see that these actions are fostering a culture of fear and distrust, which will lead to our demise.
In George Orwell’s seminal book on totalitarianism, “1984,” sex was severely regulated and loving relationships between men and women forbidden—a code protagonist Winston Smith violated when he fell in love with Julia. To “reprogram” Winston in compliance with the state, one of the members of Big Brother’s inner party breaks the trust between Winston and Julia through torture.
“Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity,” torturer O’Brien tells Winston. “You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.”
This is what we’re doing to ourselves by breeding distrust to the point that men and women can’t live authentically with one another. We are emptying ourselves of our humanity, stripping away our trust in each other, and robbing ourselves of mutual affection. I’m afraid that one day we will wake up and feel the hollowness within, find that we’re alone, and rattle the cage we’ve built around us because we chose fear instead of love.