Learning trust and social safety

Begun on 2018-09-18 by 'asimong' Simon Grant Licence: CC BY 4.0. I welcome comments by e-mail, and may incorporate ideas, giving appropriate credit.


  1. Challenges to trust and safety
  2. How do people come to feel unsafe?
  3. Patterns of distrust become part of a culture
  4. The two sides of learning


People need to feel safe enough to participate and share in vital social processes and practices, including community life, and their own learning. They need to be able to trust that others sharing their space will not abuse them. The less safe they feel, and the less they are able to trust, the more likely they are to withdraw from the social setting, removing one source for their personal learning, growth and development. I am writing this to explore the idea that both the individual and their surrounding community have a part to play in establishing trust and safety, and that this can be learned, given the right kind of positive environment.

As I write, I am noticing how hard it is to choose language which fits all perspectives fairly. I have a perspective, of course, as does everyone. My perspective is explained by this writing itself, and is hard to explain very briefly. So I will ask my readers to please bear with me until they have understood the perspective I am explaining. Then, if there appear to be better words than the ones I have first chosen, please write to me so that I get the chance to come across more helpfully. And if you know of any published works that either support or contradict the ideas I'm setting out here, please let me know.

I am trying to approach these matters from a co-operative perspective, where we all take responsibility in our own different ways, for the things that are most within our control. I hold the view that no one should be dismissed out of hand; that we all have something of value to contribute; that we can all help each other to learn about ourselves and about each other; that blame is rarely useful outside a legal context; that no one should be judged as "belonging" absolutely to a particular social group or class; and that while biology, including brain structure and biochemistry, may (statistically) influence behaviour, it does not dictate it. Out full humanity includes our ability to learn. Let's respect each other's full humanity.

1. Challenges to trust and safety

So many people have experienced pain, and felt hurt, whether in small ways or big ones. In a world of increasing inequality, more intense competition, more individualism and less collective responsibility, there is ample reason for people to become less trusting, and to feel less safe and secure. We long for safe havens. If we are not rich enough to afford to live in the supposed safety of a gated community, can we not at least have a sense of that safety when we meet together face to face, and in our online communities? Discussions on social media give plenty of evidence of that search for safety.

Sometimes it may feel that it should be simple. Can't we just simply agree on what behaviours make people feel unsafe; write a code of conduct where those behaviours are banned; and give someone the power to throw people out of our community if they contravene that code of conduct? What's wrong with that?

Here I want to explore and expand my growing understanding that this is actually really difficult, as simplistic solutions to trust and safety don't work. I want to try working out what we can do in the longer term to work towards a deeper reality of trust, engaging with the roots of what leads us to feel unsafe, or to behave in ways that lead to others feeling unsafe. The real goal is to work out how to build up a culture, either face-to-face or online, in which people feel safe enough to participate, to engage with each other, and to use that space to explore what the potential is for us to help each other make our shared world a better place.

2. How do people come to feel unsafe?

Imagine interviewing a whole lot of people about their significant life experiences, and how they feel and respond now as a consequence. Better still, imagine seeing their lives replayed, while noticing the parts involving their strongest feelings in particular. A few individuals may have been lucky, or lucky so far, and not had any significant traumatic experiences. Many more people are likely to have had their own traumatic experiences, leading to anxieties or avoidance behaviours, and maybe, in worse cases, phobias. It is not difficult to imagine the trauma, say, of being attacked by a dog as a small child, possibly leading to a phobia. At least people can can be away from dogs when discussing traumas caused by dogs, and the discussion itself can experienced as safe from any dog-related fear.

It can easily be more complex when dealing with the behaviour of other people. If one person behaves badly, but there are plenty of examples of good behaviour from other similar people, it is possible that the bad feelings will be focused on just that one person, and not generalised to a whole set. On the other hand, either when several people from a particular set have been experienced as abusive, or there are very few counter-examples of good behaviour from people in that set, or where the person seen as abusive is also seen as representative of a set of people, the sufferer can slip into feelings of distrust and unsafety around a whole set of people.

If a whole set has come to be distrusted, it is also easy to imagine how it can feel unsafe just to discuss the feelings of unsafety in the presence of a member of that set. And as discussion becomes more difficult and scarce, the opportunities for mutual understanding and reconciliation dwindle.

So distrust and unsafety can vary in scale, from just one person, to a very large set of people. As sufferers discuss their feelings with other individuals, it may or may not emerge that others share these feelings about the same people. And of course this can be a very useful process, if some people actually behave in a way that deserves a bad reputation, that bad reputation can be communicated around other people to help them avoid interaction with those of bad repute.

What is it like, then, to have a bad reputation, for making other people feel unsafe? If that bad reputation is indeed justified – the ‘bad’ people have been doing violence to other people, either deliberately or unintentionally – then they must mend their ways, changing themselves and developing new, better patterns of behaviour. That is essential, of course. How can we help that learning? Naturally, by providing an environment of low anxiety and low stress. The trouble is that if a situation of unresolved conflict is allowed to grow, then, depending on the relative strengths of the different sides of that conflict, the ‘bad’ people can end up feeling embattled – highly stressed. For their own safety, they may feel the need to take defensive positions, and that is not likely to help learning about how they could behave better. They end up feeling unsafe as well, and that isn't going to help the sufferers. When a war is on, just about everyone feels unsafe.

But what about people who pick up a bad reputation by being sympathetic with, or maybe just having some similarity with, a group who has picked up a bad reputation? If their behaviour is good, they shouldn't need to change, but they still have to suffer the stress of being taken to be the same as the people who deserved a bad reputation. They, too, can get to feeling unsafe.

3. Patterns of distrust become part of a culture

So far, I've mainly considered feelings of unsafety from the individual point of view. And I have found this a relatively easy line to take until recently. But I've now come to recognise that when people talk about feeling oppressed, or oppression, they are not just talking about individuals. How can I make sense of that?

My understanding starts from thinking about people telling the stories of their own suffering to other people. If the other people find a natural sympathy because they can picture themselves feeling similar suffering, then shared narratives can start to build up. It's not vital whether or not the behaviour patterns arise ‘naturally’, it's simply whether they are told and retold as stories. The more those stories are told, without being challenged, the more they build up expectations of what is likely to happen in the real world. At least with many children's fairy tales, adults question them, and know better from their own experience, so they lose much of their power. But for many adult stories, many people come to accept “that's just the way the world is”. And in some cases, in some senses, that can be true. Many myths are based on psychological characteristics of people that have been selected for over millennia of evolution.

Once myths are established, people come to expect themselves and others to behave in ways that conform to the myths. There is a kind of security in conforming to traditional ‘wisdom’ (not pre-judging how wise it actually is); knowing where one stands; being able to predict fairly accurately how other people will behave in a known type of situation. If someone conforms to social norms, social support can be expected from others who conform, particularly when the conformity leads to suffering. On the other hand, anyone rebelling against the dominant culture and its myths is not safe.

4. The two sides of learning

Almost no matter what the situation, there are two sides to learning: the individual; and the surrounding group in the context of which the learning is taking place. Ths individual needs to overcome unnecessary or unwelcome feelings of distrust and unsafely; but the group also needs to provide sufficient acceptance and support to facilitate the individual learning; and possibly also itself perform some cultural development, to reduce the systemic problems. Learning safety depends on to factors, both of which are necessary. The individual needs to take steps to resolve their fears and to feel safer. The community needs to provide sufficient support for each individual to take those steps.

Last modified: 2018-09-23.

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