Social stress fractures trust and frays unity. Factions fight over faiths and fiefdoms. The struggle tears the precious fabric of civil society — trust in our neighbors and institutions — to pieces.

H.L. Mencken said “democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner.” It’s also a sh-t flinging contest, by its nature divisive. The competition to win electoral majorities divides society into competing cultural groups or “classes.” We make wolves out of sheep by sowing distrust, fear, collective guilt, and other polarizing myths.

Divisiveness is not unique to democracies. It arises whenever one group seeks to dominate another. The Jewish Holocaust in Nazi Germany is one stark example of the process. African slavery in the Americas and its aftermath is another. A great many other examples exist. Destruction by social division is a universal phenomenon in human society. It breaks apart what unity and peace knit together, and corrodes trust.

In his book Mortal Republic, Edward J. Watts argues that the Roman Empire rose to power by its culture of individual honor, which valued civic stature and honor over material wealth. It lost its republic by failure to confront a strongman, and fell by its corruption. The U.S.A. will not repeat the history of Rome exactly, but we can pick out some parallels. One being the masses learning to distrust what the institutions of government and the press are telling them. The distrust arises from intense competition for political majorities and attention. Growing distrust has sown confusion.

I’ve lived in the United States for more than sixty years. Social controversies over abortion, nuclear power, Vietnam, racial and gender based discrimination, federal spending, and many others have divided my friends and neighbors before. But I’ve never seen a level of distrust and confusion as bad as now, judging from news and social media. Epochal change is in the air.

People don’t know what to believe. Some say, “The virus is real and natural, and the lock-downs were necessary.” Others, “The threat is exaggerated, the lock-downs a form of asymmetrical warfare by a foreign adversary.” And so on: “The virus is a bio weapon, released intentionally, by this or that country or secret society.” “It is a lab accident by a bungling government agency, or agencies.” “A cheap remedy exists, suppressed by the pharmaco-political complex.” “Don’t be ridiculous, only an FDA-approved vaccine can save us.” “Mass vaccination with a hastily prepared inoculant would be worse than the pandemic itself.” These and many other conflicting opinions swirl and collide. At the root lies uncertainty and distrust of every source.

We can blame our mass media, understanding it is the economic and political climate we provide that allows them, if not practically compels them, to exist and operate as they do. The work of reaching large audiences is a valid occupation for all, and any government that monopolizes it will spawn tyranny. But networks optimized for reaching mass audiences must sacrifice competing objectives. Sensationalism and controversy attract eyeballs. Mass social media cannot avoid pursuing whatever avenues create the greatest profit for its owners for the least comparative risk. Candidates win elections, and pundits earn viewers, by telling lies, half-truths, and slanderous conspiracy theories. Why do we let them? We have met our worst enemy in our mirrors, and victory is impossible without changing who we are.

Suppose, “just in case,” our institutions that survived depressions, world worlds, immense technological change and cultural revolutions can no longer save us. Suppose these institutions become the problem, standing in the way of better solutions. What then? And who defines “better”? Whatever the answers, let’s find them in non-coercive and truth-seeking defenses of positive social change. Let’s persuade ourselves and others that we have superior goods to offer, by supporting one another in pursuit of mutual benefit. Let’s reward pundits for selling ties: promoting mechanisms for solving social problems together, voluntarily. Not for selling lies.

Without social trust, we build control structures: police, prisons, slave plantations and fiefdoms. But social trust doesn’t come without work. We build it one trusted relationship at a time, one fulfilled promise at a time. Nearly all of us can do it: Be honest and help one another. Make true friends, and stick by them. Let’s start with building trust and work towards reducing the cause for fears.

Setting lofty goals is easy. Making a living in the pursuit of happiness — i.e., while meaningfully pursuing our lofty goals — is challenging. The loftier the goal, the harder the climb.

We can help each other with the ascent by granting equal rights. Under equal rights, all are free to pursue their happiness while respecting the equal right of every other person, living or to come, to likewise pursue theirs. This sort of social balance can’t work without a political system of some kind, a mechanism for settling conflicts peacefully. If we can progress towards that, even if just a bit, we will have improved things. If we can earn a livelihood while doing so in a community of like-minded people, we will greatly improve our quality of life.

It’s worth a try. We can and should migrate in the direction of individual honor and reputation as the core of civil society. We can do it with three first steps: Stand by our social assurances. Record our intentions and social assurances faithfully for all who need to know. Ask no greater assurance from others than we give in return. For more specific purposes, groups can organize and customize their mutual assurances for whatever activity they will engage in.

One such customized set-up is my favorite project: organizing artists and skilled tradespeople for mutual benefit using an intellectual property license. More about mutual licensing in later posts. Whether my favorite project grows or withers, we as a culture are heading for an outburst of innovation in social cooperation. The opportunities are abundant. Your choices will never be more fateful than they are today. May you choose wisely and well.