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Humanness Symposium II
The Crisis of Trust, Hope, and a Sense of Community in Today’s World

Vello Sermat

An investigation of elements leading to the current crisis from the perspective of the rise of individualism, changes in family and city life, and the notion that democracy does not imply freedom.

Vello Sermat is a psychologist from York University, Toronto.


There is a widespread concern today on all levels of society about the decline of civic-mindedness, the degeneration of moral values and the diminution of trust in and respect toward all authority. In a recent article, Francis Fukuyama writes:

"The perceived breakdown of social order is not a matter of nostalgia, poor memory, or ignorance about the hypocrisies of earlier ages. The decline is readily measurable in statistics on crime, fatherless children, broken trust, reduced opportunities for and outcomes from education, and the like.

"... The culture of individualism, which in the laboratory and the marketplace leads to innovation and growth, spilled over into the realm of social norms, where it corroded virtually all forms of authority and weakened the bonds holding families, neighborhoods, and nations together." 1

In this context I will look at some trends which have brought us to this crisis. These trends include the rise of individualism, changes in city life and changes in the definition of democracy.

The Rise of Individualism

The French philosopher, historian and politician Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited America from 1821 to 1832, published his observations in a book titled Democracy in America. 2 Tocqueville focused on three features of American life, which in his view formed the American character. These were family life, religious traditions, and participation in local politics. He saw these as the vital elements, which assured the citizen's involvement in the larger political community and ultimately supported the maintenance of free institutions.

A recent study by American sociologists has revealed a major change in the way people are thinking about themselves with regard to their relationship to others and the larger society. This study was published by five American sociologists–Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler and Steven Tipton–under the title Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. The fieldwork was carried in the years between 1979 and 1984, consisting of extensive interviews with over 200 persons. Different teams focused on specific questions. One team interviewed therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and lay counsellors (clergy), attended graduate classes and case conferences as well as clients who had been in psychotherapy. Others studied local business people, managers of enterprises and civic organisations. They asked people questions such as, How do we think about our way of life? How ought we to live? Who are we (as Americans)? What is our character? As a point of comparison they used the Tocqueville’s description of American life 150 years ago.

At that time Tocqueville viewed with a mixture of admiration and anxiety a new trend that was as spreading through America, which he called individualism. As the subtitle Individualism and Commitment in America suggests, the authors of Habits of the Heart were also concerned about this trend, particularly that the destructive side of individualism was undermining those traditions and practices that safeguarded freedom itself (foreword, p. vii). The authors were quite surprised by the shift in attitudes they discovered. They found a certain life philosophy, which they called the therapeutic outlook, had spread from a relatively small number of people involved in psychotherapy and counselling to the larger society. The Therapeutic Outlook appears to be a convergence of therapeutic ideas garnered from Carl Rogers’ Client Centred Therapy, Abraham Maslow’s Self-Actualisation, Karen Horney Tyranny of Shoulds, Fredrick Perls Gestalt Prayer, 3 etc. Since WWII, those sharing this therapeutic outlook believe that any discussion of values by which one ought to live as futile. They view moral values as being based on subjective choice, which means that there is no way of determining which moral point of view is "more correct." The authors also found that people holding this therapeutic outlook distrust all responsibilities and agreements not explicitly negotiated by the parties involved. What this amounts to is, that, with few exceptions, there are no moral principles, no universal code of justice, other than negotiated consensus by which to decide issues. Everything boils down to a competition of the advantages and benefits of different special interest groups. And since this ideology of individualism provides no basis for evaluating the legitimacy of one claim over another, ultimately those who have power decide the outcome.

The authors found that many citizens were aware of the forces which ruled their lives, and that outcomes were not determined by fair marketplace competition among roughly equal competitors, or by consensual decisions. Examples of the forces at work are seen in advertising, which seeks to influence consumer choice; in government programs which direct subsidies to various sectors of the society; in defence industries which are not subject to reliable cost accounting; and in technologies which enable centralised, or even international control over finance, production, and marketing (p. 208). Furthermore, we constantly see that democratic debate and consensus, where the larger public would have say, have had no place in negotiations involving union busting, or the dismantling of government regulative agencies, which gives the corporate world free reign.

To summarise, currently, there is no generally shared set of ethical values, and there is a prevailing view that each individual must decide by what values he/she wants to live. Without a general set of values and beliefs that are considered to be absolute, around which people can unite, and to which representatives in government and the forces of the marketplace could held accountable, today's citizen is isolated in this individualistic position, and quite powerless to influence the greater forces that rule over his life. And since it seems that many have accepted this sense of powerlessness, according to Tocqueville the door is open for tyranny.

The attitudes borne out of the therapeutic outlook have not only had a serious effect on the individual’s relationship to his or her world, but also on interpersonal relationships and family life.

Interpersonal relationships

The widespread acceptance of the view that the individual himself is the ultimate judge of what is good or bad (in terms of what feels good of bad to him) affects our personal relationships.

Tocqueville believed that the American society owed its vitality and strength to the American woman. By this he meant the traditional family, although he observed that even in the beginning of 19th century American women were more independent and assertive than European women. He believed that American women were the defenders of Christian and Republican values. While men were daily involved in struggle for survival and economic success, sacrificing ethics for profit, American women guarded the ethical rules and ensured that their men observed them.

Up until the industrial age, marriage and the family were necessary and had the primary functions of raising children and working together as a production team. In the nineteenth century romantic love became the principle upon which marriage was founded, more or less. In the later part of the twentieth century having children was no longer a necessary aspect of marriage or living together. The larger, extended family also faded out of daily life, partly because of increased mobility, and partly because maintaining contact, and the extent to which one maintained contact, became a matter of individual free choice, not of duty or moral values and social norms. It has reached the point where even children and parents living in the same home often live their private lives with little contact. Children have no responsibilities to parents, and after the children have reached a certain age, parents have little responsibility toward children. The situation is quite different in collectivist societies. In China and Japan, for example, there is an indeed an expectation and a primary obligation of married couples, and families, to look after the elderly.

Today, marriage (or living together) primarily serves the individual's need to belong, to have a safe and comfortable little enclave in which he or she can find a haven of comfort, support, understanding and intimate companionship, all of which are absent in the outside world. Expectations for an intimate relationship have greatly increased, and in some cases the relationship has achieved levels of mutual rewards, which were rare in the nineteenth century where the family was an economic production unit, and not a source of great intimacy or closeness.

This desire for personal warmth, for human touch, for this sense of "family" is great in today's North American society. Expectations for closeness and intimacy are high, but our knowledge of what is realistically possible and our skills to achieve and maintain such a relationship, are often not equal to the task. We lack general, culturally and socially accepted guidelines for being married, or entering into some parallel form of this relationship. We simply do not know what it takes. People get married with very little idea what happens afterwards, so these daydreams simply do not come true.

In addition to heightened expectations for such relationships, and our lack of guidelines, another factor, which adds to the difficulty of achieving and maintaining such relationships is the ease with which one can break such a relationship, if it fails meet to meet our fantastic expectations. Since in many cases the actual rewards experienced in a new relationship fall short of expectations, about one half of newly married couples divorced in the last 10-20 years.

Finally, in the past century we have seen a dramatic change in the roles men and women play in relationships. Indeed, there appear to be no social norms describing men’s and women’s roles, which lock one into the performance of certain tasks. Everything is negotiable. Everything is changing.

Family Life

As interpersonal relationships change, and break down, so too do families. Among numerous authors, which include Fukuyama, Thomas Hauser and Frank MacChiarola 4 consider the breakdown of the family the most serious crisis in today's society. (p. 37)

"... even when parents are present physically, there is often a lack of quality interaction between parent and child. Children need someone who will listen to them, and also someone they can listen to. And this is particularly true in an age when children have far more to contend with than their counterparts of thirty or forty years ago. They‘re regularly put into situations in which they must make choices regarding sex and drugs. They’re unsure of the value of the skills that they will develop by working hard in school. They’re told, in many ways, that they will have less than their parents, and that their expectations should diminish accordingly. Yet, at the same time, many parents are so busy with their pursuits that they don't have time, or don't take the time when they do come home to sit and talk with their children." (p. 37-38)

"And at the same time the American family has been breaking down, the community values that once buttressed morality have also been disintegrating. Significant values are rarely developed and seldom discussed in a community setting anymore. Moral lapses go unnoticed in the anonymity of the crowd." (p. 39)

Indeed, Fukuyama and others go as far as to say that this breakdown of the family is the key to the breakdown of society (in contrast to those who argue that the family as we know it is outmoded, it is rapidly changing and will no longer exist).

From the detrimental effect of individualism on interpersonal relationships and family life, which partly precipitated the crisis of hope and trust in modern society, two other contributing factor to this crisis will now be examined, the changes in the urban landscape and the reality that democracy can exclude personal liberty.

Unfriendly City Life

In a subsequent book to Habits of the Heart, called The Good Society, Bellah and his colleagues 5 discuss the effect of rapid and unplanned city growth on the quality of urban life. The historic old city centres had a civilising influence. In America, city growth over the last half-century has undermined and corroded these old centres–people have been geographically dispersed, isolated from each other, and have become often shockingly indifferent to human misery and environmental degradation.

The concept of "city" comes from the Latin word civitatem and primarily means 'citizenship'; only later it came to mean 'urban centre'. Bellah and his colleagues point out in another book that the city is,

"… above all a network of friends. The virtues of friendship are key to the political and civic order. Without civic friendship, a city will degenerate into a struggle of contending interest groups unmediated by any public solidarity." 6

Arts and culture, and the so-called third sector provided opportunities during which these networks of friends could be established. Unfortunately, today,

"Only a few city residents are oriented to the traditional urban culture in the arts, politics, intellectual and civic life, which at its best served to make America's older cities the foci of a creative social life." (p. 268)

"... the organizations of the "third sector"–such as schools and universities, religious organizations, theaters, museums, and orchestras, voluntary associations of all kinds–have given the collective purposes of justice, mutual aid, enlightenment, worship, fellowship, and celebration some substance in metropolitan life. They have civilized commerce and enhanced metropolitan life. They are points of ‘focal structure,’ places where people can meet to focus their attention and gain a sense of the whole life through the cultivation of memory and orientation." (p. 269)

These civilising influences only affect a small part of the teaming populations of today’s megacities. Merely ameliorate the problem, they remain far from solving it.

Thomas Hauser and Frank MacChiarola mention some other concerns of modern family and city life; including,

  • personal safety
  • crime at all levels of society
  • the replacing of self-interest for sacrifice and community values as the main reason that people vote for parties and political leaders, and
  • the danger of racial fragmentation (especially in the United States). 7

Illiberal Democracy

In the rest of the world, the new democracies have not built strong bases of values and practices. In case of Russia, it is doubtful whether it will ever develop in this direction. In other countries, popular rulers may be elected by more-or-less open and fair elections, but then they proceed to rule tyrannically, as was the case in the Republic of Kazakhstan and a number of other former countries formerly occupied by the Soviet Union.

Philippe Schmitter in his article "Dangers and Dilemmas of Democracy" 8 has written:

"The widespread desire of fledgling neodemocracies to imitate the basic norms and institutions of established liberal democracies is by no means a guarantee of success. There is no proof that democracy is inevitable, irrevocable, or a historical necessity. It neither fills some indispensable functional requisite of capitalism nor corresponds to some ineluctable (inescapable) ethical imperative in social evolution. There is every reason to believe that its consolidation demands an extraordinary and continuous effort–one that many countries are unlikely to be able to make." (p. 57-58)

"Democracy's current ideological hegemony could well fade as disillusionment with the actual performance of neodemocracies mounts and as disaffected actors revive old authoritarian themes or invent new ones.

"Even if autocracy fails to experience a revival, democracies may stumble on without satisfying the aspirations of their citizens and without consolidating an acceptable and predictable set of rules for political competition and cooperation." (p.58)

"Given the high initial expectations of the people at large, it may come as a shock to realize that the fall of tyrants fails to spell the rise of endless harmony and good feelings; that the popular uprising or the resurrection of civil society is powerless to produce an actionable "general will"; that "honest democrats" can bicker incessantly over seemingly minor details; that the mere advent of democracy does not also bring freedom and equality, growth and equity, security and opportunity, efficiency and responsiveness, autonomy and accountability, la pluie et le beau temps. Is it any wonder, then, that disenchantment sets in and that more and more people begin to question whether democracy is really worth so much anxiety and uncertainty?" (p. 61-62).

Fareed Zacharia, the editor of the journal Foreign Affairs, has recently written about the rise of illiberal democracy in today's world. 9

"The collapse of Soviet Union gave rise to great expectations, that the totalitarian regimes it had brought to power would be replaced by a rise of democracy. For a while it seemed that tyrannies were in retreat nearly everywhere around the world, as elected rulers replaced dictators. Soon it became evident, however, that more-or-less free and fair elections alone do not guarantee the triumph of those other benefits which accompany it in the Western democracies: the rule of law, a separation of legislative and executive powers and independent judiciary, the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property." (p. 22)

Zakaria has pointed out that these rights and freedoms, which we often think are a part of democracy, are essentially and theoretically different, and historically distinct from democracy. He calls them constitutional liberalism (p.23). Democracy, which first and foremost means the rule of the people through open, free and fair elections, has come to flourish, but constitutional liberalism has not. Elections in the new democracies are rarely as free and fair as in the West. (p. 23)

In some places, such Belarus or Kazakhstan, democratic elections have brought to power tyrants. In most of the corner countries in the communist bloc, former communists were elected back to power. They tended to oppose political and economic reform and used the opportunity to enrich themselves and their supporters. In Russia, a sick and unpredictable president rules by decree and nobody is able to predict what will happen if he should die or become incapacitated. His successor will most likely continue to use the almost dictatorial powers of his office, and Eastern Europe may become unstable and dangerous, which could radically change the situation in Europe and rest of the world (for example, Serbia). Terrorism, the deterioration of the global environment, spreading hunger, 10 discontent and economic crises cannot be controlled by any single government; co-operation is needed, and citizens in different countries have to understand and support the measure that may be necessary.

The problem is not limited to new democracies, which have come into existence in the last eight years. The crisis and the feeling of powerlessness also affect the citizens of Western Europe and North America. As Robert Elshtain, Bellah, Schmitter and others have observed, habits of self-restraint, trust in institutions, and belief in the legitimacy of rulers have been persistently declining.

The individualism that was seen as granting freedom and self-empowerment, brought with it the sense of alienation many feel in our urban centres, so that finally in the face of the great problems facing our society, the individual feels that his choices are few and their effect negligible.

End Notes:

1Francis Fukuyama, Atlantic Monthly, May 1999, p.56. Fukuyama is the also the author of The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press, 1992). Return to Text.

2Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Doubleday, 1969). This book was originally published in French between 1835 and 1840. Return to Text.

3"I do my thing and you do your thing
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations
And you are not in this world to live up to mine
You are you and I am I
And if by chance we find each other
It is beautiful"
Return to Text.

4Thomas Hauser and Frank MacChiarola, Confronting America's Moral Crisis : Restoring Our Values and Integrity, (Hastings House Pub, 1995). Return to Text.

5Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen et al., The Good Society (Knopf, 1991). Return to Text.

6Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen et al., Habits of the Heart : Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of California Press, 1985), p. 116. Return to Text.

7Thomas Hauser and Frank MacChiarola, p. 40. Return to Text.

8Philippe Schmitter, "Dangers and Dilemmas of Democracy," Journal of Democracy, vol. 5, No. 2, April 1991. Return to Text.

9Fareed Zakaria, "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy," Foreign Affairs, vol.76, No.6, Nov.-Dec. 1997. Return to Text.

10One Red Cross Official has said that by next fall or winter there will be an enormous famine in Russia, millions will be moving West to escape it; problems are on the horizon. Return to Text.

About this Article

Vello Sermat : The Crisis of Trust, Hope, and a Sense of Community in Today’s World
Presented at the Symposium on Humanness
Friday May 28, 1999 – Sunday, May 30, 1999
Draft: 11/12/1999 Posted: 01/11/2000

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