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Category: Non-fiction

Florian Mühlfried

Misstrauen. Vom Wert eines Unwertes
[Mistrust: The Value of an Anti-Value]


Take care in whom you trust. Florian Mühlfried explores mistrust – and the ‘value of an anti-value’

‘Trust is good, control is better’. That was Lenin’s succinct summing-up. Now, Florian Mühlfried, an ethnologist, social anthropologist and expert on the Caucasus at the University of Jena, has written an essay that takes a closer look at the relations between trust and mistrust. For Lenin, then, ‘trust’ was still positive on the whole, while in Mühlfried’s view the picture is decidedly mixed. Precisely in times when politicians solicit our trust and struggle to overcome crises of trust we ought to analyse this largely unexamined value – as well as its twin, mistrust, with its largely negative connotations. Unlike doubt which ever since Descartes has been mainly viewed in a positive light, mistrust has no lobby – on the contrary, with few exceptions neither philosophers nor sociologists have thought highly of mistrust. Following the ‘crisis of truthfulness’ and the worldwide hostility towards experts, there has been a growing tendency to treat mistrust merely as a danger and trust as a lifeline of democracy. Mühlfried opposes this tendency with his conviction that ‘Democracy cannot survive without trust, but it cannot survive without mistrust either.’

He makes a distinction between the various forms and facets of mistrust. Centripetal mistrust in his view acts internally and shows itself in ‘social engagement to monitor state or economic activities’, from the Taxpayers’ League to Greenpeace.  Centrifugal mistrust moves outwardly and has no desire to improve society, but wishes rather to ‘free itself from it’; ‘jihadist and other sectarian groupings’ can serve as examples of this. Furthermore, Mühlfried identifies overt and covert expressions of mistrust: ‘to show your mistrust makes you vulnerable; it is held to be destructive’.  Covert mistrust, on the other hand, acts out of sight, beneath the visible threshold of polite manners, conventions and rituals.
In his analysis of overt mistrust Mühlfried proceeds from a personal experience. During a university conference in Kazakhstan he noticed that a camera had been installed in the lecture hall and it aroused his feeling of mistrust – to the point where without further ado he made it the subject of his own lecture. ‘Explicit mistrust’, he noted, ‘is quickly misunderstood as hostility.’ This experience led Mühlfried to describe how mistrust has gradually been banished politically; his interim judgement on the openly expressed variant of mistrust is that ‘it almost seems as if this form of civic mistrust had vanished along with the old Federal Republic’. Conflating liberal, democratic and revolutionary versions, he concludes that it is increasingly difficult for mistrust to function constructively internally while the variant that opposes the system but in a spirit of resignation is increasingly common.

In the next major group, that of the hidden forms of mistrust, Mühlfried takes his examples from the history of film and ethnology, since these show the huge divergences to be found in our social intercourse with strangers and outsiders. Looked at ethnologically, societies strive to integrate outsiders or else to spew them out, as Mühlfried explains, basing his view on Lévi-Strauss. The example of Georgian hospitality with its ritualised table manners and toasts enables him to show how a guest can be overwhelmed and ‘entangled in a web of solidarities’. Beneath this level of trust, however, there lurks a second, hidden level of mistrust which regards the guest as a source of danger or even as an enemy. Trust and mistrust exist simultaneously. ‘There is always something that isn’t shared but which should be preserved, a habitual reserve’. Mühlfried warns that current appeals for wholehearted trustingness aim to do away with these two levels, which make distance, playfulness, ‘reserve and reticence’ possible.  

In contrast, all groups who aim at total mistrust of everything outside the group and absolute trust towards everything inside it, from IS to the [former Nazi] Wehrsportgruppe Hoffmann and from there to the Russian ‘thieves in law’ receive a general thumbs-down, as was to be expected. The ‘principle of mistrust’ that Mühlfried wants to rescue is based precisely on the doubts about such absolute demands. Unlike the Trumps and the Putins who claim that trust – in the ‘fake news’ media, for example – is not worth the trouble, but who remain equally distant from the European politicians who appeal to trust as a unifying factor, Mühlfried relies on trust as a cultural technique. Confronted by ‘the growing power of international corporations and the simultaneously declining influence of government regulation’ and in the light of yet further threats, from that of climate change about which people are in denial to the excessive power of Facebook, we shall ‘still have need of our mistrust’. This is the author’s conclusion and we could sum up by saying that what is at stake here is the reinstatement of classical socio-political virtues, from doubt, via criticism to civil control. A point for Descartes, then, and perhaps even for Lenin. Though that too has to be seen critically. For it is the citizens who should monitor the state and not the other way around.

Translated by Rodney Livingstone

Book cover Mistrust: The Value of an Anti-Value

By Jutta Person

Jutta Person, born 1971 in South Baden, studied German, Italian and Philosophy in Cologne and Italy, and gained a doctorate with a dissertation on the history of physiognomy in the 19th century. A journalist and cultural commentator, she is based in Berlin and writes for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Zeit and Philosophie Magazin. From 2004 to 2007 she was an editor at Literaturen; since 2011 she has been in charge of the books section at Philosophie Magazin.

(Updated: 2020)