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Before Things Fall Apart

Managing Community Mistrust and Skepticism

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sunday Olukoju
April 28, 2015

From the peaceful “Idle No More” protests in Winnipeg over the poor conditions of Aboriginal Canadians, to the volatile and racially-charged protests in Ferguson, Missouri over the killing of Michael Brown and most recently the angry protests in Baltimore, Maryland over the murder of Freddie Gray, one common thread is that things appear to be falling apart. Communities are angry at unaddressed and recurring injustices. Those in authority are no longer trusted. The words coming from the seat of power are no longer believable. The very core of democratic values is now under the microscope and new questions arise. What is going on with our democracy? Are we truly who we claim to be in terms of equitable share of power and resources? Does our system promote the marginalization of certain people? What can we do about it? Are we willing to own up that there is a problem?

What’s trust got to do with it?

“No government enjoys the absolute trust of its citizens; arguably, none should,” according to William Mishler and Richard Rose in a 1997 Journal of Politics article titled “Trust, Distrust and Skepticism: Popular Evaluations of Civil and Political Institutions in Post-Communist Societies.” The duo concluded that, “Popular trust in social and political institutions is vital to the consolidation of democracy,” and that “Both early life socialization experiences and contemporary performance evaluations influence levels of trust.”

An Aborigin child that grew up seeing his parents live in abject poverty will not trust a government that does not improve his or her own life as a young adult. A black man that grew up being harassed by police will never trust the system if no law enforcement officer was ever reprimanded or punished by the court of law. In fact, as long as certain groups have no input into the law of the land or administration of justice, they will remain skeptical, no matter how well-intentioned the plan of the government. Trust must be earned and not demanded.

Mishler and Rose agreed that, “Trust also is essential to the establishment of civil society, the institutions of which create within citizens a sense of community and connect them to government.” A government that loses the trust of its citizens runs the risk of carrying a burden of illegitimacy. According to Mishler and Rose:

“Trust, however, is double edged. Democracy requires trust but also presupposes an active and vigilant citizenry with a healthy skepticism of government and a willingness, should the need arise, to suspend trust and assert control over government at a minimum by replacing the government of the day.”

This is where the rubber meets the road. Under the present democratic dispensation can we really boast of having the power to replace or even influence democratic institutions? Is the justice system easily accessible to the most aggrieved?

The way forward

We may have to revisit our institutions and revitalize the weak or outdated ones. A few suggestions:

  1. Open acknowledgment that there is a governance problem. Why do we have democratic institutions if we cannot change “dangerous” neighborhoods?
  2. Re-train institutional personnel, with a deliberate effort to include a higher percentage of locals to run local affairs.
  3. Checks and balances that will guarantee justice. The system of justice should be easily accessible to those with grievances.
  4. Be more proactive; for example, create a website to report incidences. The use of mobile devices to record and upload events and incidences should be encouraged among the public. Citizens, especially from underrepresented constituencies, should be selected to review and recommend actions within a stipulated period of time.
  5. Leaders should connect with constituents through community town hall meetings; they should listen and address issues immediately.
  6. Transparency and openness should be enforced, with open invitations to the public to attend trials of public interest.
  7. More public education that promotes responsible citizenship. Hence, neighborhoods perceived as “dangerous” should have trained locals working closely with the law enforcement to allay fears and prevent violence from perceived threats.

There are several points of agreement with Mishler and Rose: “Perceptions of freedom and fairness have had the stronger net effect on contemporary trust.” Before things fall apart beyond redemption, government must work hard to ensure that every segment of the society has a strong perception that there IS freedom to live, love, serve and excel in an atmosphere of fairness, equity, justice, fair play and legal protection for all.

AuthorSunday Akin Olukoju, Ph.D. is the president of the Canadian Center for Global Studies, a non-profit organization and also teaches at Athabasca University in Alberta, CanadaOlukoju can be reached at [email protected].

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