Cooperative distrust

Is there a doctrine or manifesto of cooperative distrust? Because I think that’s what we need today, in the face of reams of government data — almost all of it, in fact — that is untrustworthy, and the only way it can support our democracy is if the public response to it (if and when it becomes available in the public domain) is led by cooperative distrust: one and all distrusting it, investigating the specific way in which it has been distorted, undoing that distortion and, finally, reassessing the data.

The distrust here needs to be cooperative not to undermine the data (and thus avoid spiralling off into conspiracies) but to counteract the effects of ‘bad data’ on ethical public governance. There are some things that we the public trust our government to not undercut – but our present one has consistently undercut government while empowering the party whose members occupy it.

In the latest, and quite egregious, example, the Indian government has said an empowered committee it set up during the country’s devastating second COVID-19 outbreak to manage the supply of medical oxygen does not exist. Either the government really didn’t create the committee and lied during the second wave or it created the committee but is desperately trying to hide its proceedings now by lying. Either way, this is a new low. But more pertinently, the government is behaving this way because it seems to be intent on managing each event to the party’s utmost favour – pointing to a committee when having one is favourable, pretending it didn’t exist when it is unfavourable – without paying attention to the implications for the public memory of government action.

Specifically, the government’s views at different points of time don’t – can’t – fit on one self-consistent timeline because its reality in, say, April 2021 differs from its reality in August 2021. But to consummate its history-rewrite, it has some commentators’ help; given enough time, OpIndia and its ilk are sure to manufacture explanations for why there never was a medical oxygen committee. On the other hand, what do the people remember? Irrespective of public memory, public attention is more restricted and increasingly more short-lived, and it has always boded poorly that both sections of the press and the national government have been comfortable with taking advantage of this ‘feature’, for profits, electoral gains, etc.

Just as there is a difference between what the world really looks like and what humans see (with their eyes and brains), there is a significant difference between history and memory. Today, remembering that there was a medical oxygen committee depends simply on recent memory; one more year and remembering the same thing will also demand the inclination to distrust the government’s official line and reach for the history books (so to speak).

But the same government has also been eroding this inclination – with carrots as well as sticks – and it will continue, resulting ultimately in the asymptotic, but fallacious and anti-democratic, convergence of history and memory. Cooperative distrust can be a useful intervention here, especially as a matter of habit, to continuously reconcile history and memory (at least to the extent to which they concern facts) into a self-consistent whole at every moment, instead of whenever an overt conflict of facts arises.

Freatured image credit: geralt/pixabay.