February 14, 2013

The Valley of the Shadow

Patrick Marren
Partner

Recent work with clients has led us to consider alternative future scenarios for the great institutions of our society. 

For these purposes I would define institutions broadly, as the organizations and authorities and sources of legitimacy that have traditionally been accepted by the mass of our society. Included in this group would be governmental bodies, religious authorities, academia, business, the mainstream media, the military, the presidency, Congress, the judiciary, law enforcement, and the like. 

These institutions all, to one extent or another, rely upon the trust of the public to function. This trust in turn depends upon their perceived possession of unique and superior information; their perceived competence in carrying out their functions; and the public's feeling that they are acting in good faith on behalf of worthy societal goals. 

In the past, institutions such as the ones named above were able more or less to monopolize knowledge and information related to their fields of expertise. Because information on their internal workings and possible failures or malfeasance was hard to come by, and because at a societal level the institutions seemed to be achieving the ends they were ordained to achieve, public trust in institutions was maintained at a high level. Whether it was the Catholic Church, Walter Cronkite, the federal government, General Motors, the military, judges, or President Eisenhower, satisfaction (though it may at the time have seemed to be less than universal) was maintained at a very high level. 

Several things caused this satisfaction to decline from the post-war period until, say, the 1990s.

1. First, as the emergencies of the Depression and World War II receded into the past, Americans no longer felt the necessity to pull together and demonstrate national unity. This allowed them to examine aspects of their society with a more critical eye.

2. Second, a generally higher level of affluence added to the effect of #1 above. Having to work fewer hours gives one more time to think about the institutions that shape one's life.

3. More information became available about these institutions. The growth of media, publishing, and academe all operated to expose more of the internal workings of government, religion, science, medicine, the military, banks, etc. This tended to degrade the authority of these institutions.

4. Many of these institutions were felt to have failed their constituencies at one or more points during the post-war period. The government had Watergate; the military (and government) had Vietnam; most mainstream religions experienced a decline in affiliation and support in the United States; financial institutions had various failures, e.g. the stagflation of the 1970s and the S&L crisis; and the public became aware of any number of ways in which they were being harmed rather than protected by their institutional arrangements - for example, by various carcinogens and pollutants, or by government mis-, mal- or non-feasance.

It has not all gone one way. Government (or at least the presidency) experienced a resurgence of sorts under the presidency of Ronald Reagan, despite Reagan's statement that "Government is not the solution; government is the problem." The military benefited from a resurgence in patriotism as a result of the 1991 Gulf War; despite recent setbacks, that higher respect for the military has not been completely washed away. There has been a growth over the past generation in the number of adherents to evangelical, fundamentalist, and other more authoritarian brands of religious observance. There seems, in general, to be a hunger on the part of a large minority, at least, of the public to get back to a situation of respect for authority, and maybe more important, for certainties upon which to base their lives and those of their families.

Now we come to our era. What is happening to institutional authority right now?

Well, the outstanding macro-level impression is of an ongoing landslide, with traditional institutions in continuous and perhaps increasing crisis.

The reason, I would argue, is information. Particularly, proprietary information, which used to be the currency of power of these institutions, is far more readily publicly available thanks to the Internet and the explosion in sensationalistic, scandal-driven media it has helped to bring about. Organizations like Wikileaks and Anonymous are attacking authoritarian secretive institutions like some sort of plague. Any institution that depends upon maintaining secrecy and an aura of unimpeachable righteous authority, or at least of legitimacy and public importance, is suffering right now. 

There are at least two possible long-term scenarios with respect to this situation. 

1. Great institutions continue to crumble under an accelerating frequency and severity of attacks upon their legitimacy, competence and societal value. With a decreasing store of confidential information, status, and public trust, authoritative institutions erode away, perhaps replaced by a constantly shuffling set of new institutions that arise with claims to legitimacy and value, but which themselves fall prey to the same destructive forces. Note that this does not have to imply that the institutions in every case deserve to decline: scandal and sensation-driven media, and Wikileaks-type organizations, will naturally expose the information most likely to embarrass and harm the authorities in question, thus projecting the most outrageous image possible in order to promote their own interests. While some institutions may deserve to be destroyed in this way, others will lose trust through almost no fault of their own, and society will be the loser. 

2. The trends outlined above will indeed take a toll upon leading societal institutions, but in the longer run, an ethic of transparency will end up increasing public confidence in great institutions, especially those that have the self-confidence and discipline to expose themselves to full disclosure.

Of the second scenario, one might say with Hemingway's Jake Barnes, "Isn't it pretty to think so." It is difficult to imagine how, in an atmosphere of complete (and immensely profitable) politicization of every issue, and with the increasing profusion of "facts" on the Internet, how authenticity could ever be achieved for a public that is spring-loaded to file every single thing on the web as either "Our Team" or "Their Team." Universal public acceptance would appear to be little more than a fond dream, and the ease with which even the most seemingly unambiguous facts can have doubt cast upon them will make it awfully difficult for any institution that hopes to achieve such broad acceptance and public trust.

But let us imagine that it is possible for future institutions to achieve, if not full acceptance, something more than pure partisan support and trust. To get to that place, said institutions will still probably have to go through a lengthy shakeout period of wandering in the desert and losing legitimacy and trust. Whether it is a religion, government, medicine, the military, business, the law, or anything else, we are in the golden age of conspiracy theories and charlatans posing as experts. We are still on the downward slope of respect for great institutions, and if that curve is to someday rise again, an entire infrastructure of authentication and a new consensus on what the meaning of the word "is" is may have to emerge, slowly and painfully.

In the words of our third president: "A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the meantime we are suffering deeply in spirit...." 

Jefferson could not have imagined the "reign of witches" we are living through now. And whether "true sight" will be recovered remains an open question. But even if it is, we will almost certainly have to pass through a Valley of the Shadow before our institutions learn how to live with total transparency. 

Thoughts?