Saturday, 4 January 2020

Radical TRUST

The People's Studio: Collective Imagination, at the new MoMA (image taken from the website)

Hospitality. Courage. Humility. TRUST.

I was in my RESHAPE group’s last meeting for 2019, reflecting on art and citizenship, and I wrote down these words, which kept coming up in our discussions. The word “TRUST”, though, was one that I was carrying with me from other meetings and discussions in the last months. It had sprang on so many occasions, that it finally caught my full attention.

On December 13, the last day of our RESHAPE meeting, we woke up to the news of the British election. One of the first articles I read on that day was entitled “Why people vote for politicians they know are liars”, the pressing question on many people’s mind that morning.

“Are people insensitive to falsehoods? Do they not know whether things are true or false? Do people no longer care about truth?”, questioned the author Stephan Lewandowsky, professor of cognitive psychology. He went on to explain the distinction between our conventional understanding of honesty and the notion of “authenticity”: “The main element of honesty is factual accuracy, whereas the main element of authenticity is an alignment between the public and private persona of a politician.”

Lewandowsky referred to Oliver Hahl’s research, who has identified the specific circumstances in which people accept politicians who lie. “It is only when people feel disenfranchised and excluded from a political system that they accept lies from a politician who claims to be a champion of the ‘people’ against the ‘establishment’ or ‘elite’. Under those specific circumstances, flagrant violations of behaviour that is championed by this elite – such as honesty or fairness — can become a signal that a politician is an authentic champion of the ‘people’ against the ‘establishment’.” Based again on Hahl’s research, when people consider a political system to be legitimate and fair, they reject politicians who tell untruths and they resent being lied to. “To defang demagogues”, writes Lewandowsky, “and to make lying unacceptable again, requires that voters regain TRUST in the political system.”

The new Helsinki library (image taken from Citylab).

Trust is the word also for the city of Helsinki, which has the ambition of becoming the most functional city in the world my 2021. In its 2017-2021 strategy document, one reads that a functional city is based on trust. “A functional city has many strengths and few weaknesses. Functionality is based on equality, non-discrimination, strong social cohesion and open, inclusive ways of operating. Everyone feels safe in Helsinki. A functional city is based on TRUST. Safety and a sense of mutual TRUST and togetherness are a competitive edge for the city. The city is for everyone. The city is built together.”

This vision is then reflected on the concrete actions the city is taking in order to implement its plan. Discussing Helsinki’s new (2018) public library, Tommi Laitio, the city’s executive director for culture and leisure, stated in an interview: "This progress from one of the poorest countries of Europe to one of the most prosperous has not been an accident. It’s based on this idea that when there are so few of us - only 5.5 million people - everyone has to live up to their full potential. Our society is fundamentally dependent on people being able to TRUST the kindness of strangers.”

It seems to me that TRUST is perhaps one of the most radical actions one may take in order to confront the demagogues, the populists, the liars, the “authentic” saviours. But we have got a long way ahead of us which requires building on the values of honesty, transparency, empathy, inclusion. People, citizens, need to feel strong, confident, empowered. They need to feel that they matter, they need to believe that “Yes, I can do something about it”. Trusting the kindness of strangers, though, is not something that happens “because yes”. To trust is to go against one’s instincts of fear and survival. It’s radical; it takes courage; it’s what´s missing.

In one of our RESHAPE meetings last year, one of my colleagues shared the following from Jay Griffiths’ book "Wild": "I was educated - as we all are - to stay inside, within the bounds of my tribe (physical bounds and intellectual bounds) and to stay within the protected zone, to let the traffic of routine smother the desire for the real outside. I was taught - as we all are - to be scared of the prowling unknown, of the wild deserts of beyond." “How can art better support practising citizenship together?”, is the central question in our group. Perhaps by helping people discover and TRUST their imagination, by feeding “the energy and drive of those who try to convert words into concrete actions”.

With special thanks and gratitude to 'my' Reshapers.

More sources:

Eric Corijn, Art in the age of populism, IETM Brussels opening keynote speech (2017)

Wayne Modest, Decolonising the museum, Access Culture seminar (2019)

Álvaro Laborinho Lúcio, O papel político das organizações culturais, Conferência Anual da Acesso Cultura (2019)

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