There never was a time in history when it was safe to have a naïve and trusting nature. Look at what happened to Voltaire’s Candide. And I am beginning to wonder whether the last remaining naïve and trusting personalities have been selected out by evolution – not so much biological as commercial and political evolution. Only the tricksters and scammers seem to flourish.
In my respectable bourgeois family every stranger was assumed to be honest and trustworthy unless they showed some obvious contrary evidence, such as a prison uniform or a knife dripping with blood. So, I was brought up to take people at face value. It is hard to hold on to this benign view of humanity for a whole lifetime, and in any case things have changed. Now, like Hercule Poirot, we must suspect everyone of everything.
Until a few years ago my trusting nature had remained more or less intact. Obviously, there was plenty of dishonesty around, and I suffered from it occasionally like everybody else. But, on the whole, I assumed that I could trust those I dealt with, with certain obvious exceptions like used car dealers, tabloid newspapers, and politicians. My credulous generation had its eyes opened by the internet, when we became the victims of a deluge of lies, heartless tricks, cheats, impostures, and deceptions such as we had never imagined. It was as if a veil had been lifted, allowing the non-criminal majority to see that we might not be a majority after all, or like discovering a hornets’ nest hidden in the wall of the living room. They were there all the time, waiting for a chance to sting us, and we never knew.
We recently tried to rent out a small property, which we advertised on a well-established and reputable website. Some of the responses we got were almost (but fortunately not quite) beyond belief. “I would like to rent your property for three honeymoon couples for three months,” said one. This is a place with one bedroom. Many enquiries were of this surreal type. There were sub-letting scams, immigration scams, time-share scams, tax scams, identity theft scams: if you can imagine some sleazy form of trickery, then somebody else has thought of it already, and will soon try it on you.
Our naïve presumption of innocence has taken a beating right across the board. For most of our lives we assumed that scientific research must be impeccably honest, and that bankers were sober and trustworthy people. We believed implicitly that school grades, athletic performances, prescription medications and company accounts were, more or less, what they appeared to be. Not anymore. Once suspicion has taken root it spreads in all directions.
It is no fun to be suspicious of everything all the time. But I squeezed tiny glow of virtue out of it. At least I was still honest and trustworthy, as I was taught to be. This self-satisfied feeling lasted only as long as it took me to remember that I am a lifetime member of the most untrustworthy tribe on the planet, namely writers who make deception into an art form. We tell lies, that’s our job: stories, fables, fantasies, and especially memoirs. We change reality around to make it more interesting. Does that sound honest?
I was sorry to give up my fleeting moment of moral superiority. But now I can no longer remember if I really felt it, or just made it up.