Let's have more faith in each other in 2021

By Bernadette Meaden
December 30, 2020

Surveys of public attitudes consistently show that, when asked, people tend to be more positive about their own lives, friends, families and communities than they are about the country or the wider world.

This could suggest that when we have direct experience of people, we find them to be generally good, but when we don’t have that experience and are relying on reports from the media - be it mainstream or social - our perceptions are more negative. This seems to be borne out by research. For instance, surveys show that when presented with a range of problems or issues, like crime, littering, vandalism etc, people generally think that, whilst it may not be a big problem where they are, it’s a much bigger problem in the country as a whole.  Even though we may find the people we come into contact with on a regular basis to be reasonably behaved and responsible, we have a lower opinion of wider society.

Many of us may have anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon, of people believing that ‘others’ are not like them. I recently heard about a man who had lost his phone a few times. Each time it was found by a stranger and returned, but each time the person who returned it said:  “It’s a good job I found it and not somebody else, or you probably wouldn’t have got it back…” The perception of the people who found the phone was that they were honest, but other people weren’t – whilst the actual experience of the phone’s owner led him to believe that, in fact, most people are indeed honest.

This has happened in the pandemic too: when surveyed, a big majority of people believe that they and the people they know are obeying the rules, but when asked if ‘most people in the UK’ are obeying them, that majority almost disappears.

Unless we frequently study national statistics, we get our perceptions of wider society from news reports and other media coverage. Bad behaviour tends to make headlines, good behaviour is usually less high profile. As somebody once said, ‘Bad is loud, good is quiet’. So perhaps it’s not surprising that our perceptions tend to be skewed. And this is not just a British problem, it’s quite widespread. A survey in 2016 covering 40 countries showed high levels of misperception on many issues. This all suggests that when it comes to our opinion of our fellow citizens, we may need to trust our instincts and experience more, and the media less. To have more faith in our fellow man, and less in the newspaper headlines. 

This is not of course to say that we should switch off our critical faculties where people who hold power are concerned – far from it. But having more faith in ‘ordinary’ people could actually help us to hold the powerful to account more effectively.

It’s no accident that so much of the media coverage of systemic social problems, and of the pandemic, tends to imply, with varying degrees of subtlety, that it is the bad behaviour, stupidity, laziness, race, or immigration status of members of the general public which is behind those problems. This deflects unwelcome scrutiny of the people who have used their political and economic power to create those problems, and could, if they chose, use their power to solve them.

It is always in the interests of the powerful to have the powerless divided and blaming each other, instead of placing responsibility and accountability where it should really lie. Hence, perhaps, the sudden expressions of concern for ‘the white working class’, from people who have spent the past decade actively making life harder for the working class of every ethnicity. Now that Brexit is done and we’re out of the EU, the politicians who promoted it need a new excuse for poverty and inequality, and there are signs that some are experimenting with white nationalism, playing the race card.  We simply can’t let that happen.

So in 2021, let’s have more faith and trust in each other, in ‘ordinary’ people of every background, many of whom have been and continue to be heroic, and save our criticism for those with power, and the unjust systems and structures they preserve. We really are lions led by donkeys – so let's not allow the donkeys to set the lions against each other.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.