Tuesday, 4 August 2009

A question of trust

Who do you trust? Each year the Royal College of Physicians commissions a survey which invariably finds that doctors are the "most trusted" profession in the UK. After today's confirmation of the shocking extent of GPs' profiteering at the public expense, perhaps that will change. But then again it's their poll. Nurses don't feature in the top five of the most recent survey, not because they are generally considered drunken promiscuous slobs who steal the gold teeth off comatose patients, but because they don't feature at all. I wonder why. People also trust teachers, judges and members of the clergy, apparently. Surely it would depend on which judges, or which clergymen. How many people trust Abu Hamza, or Mr Justice Eady? Scientists are slightly less trusted than judges (sorry, Simon), but more than the police, while journalists won their annual battle with MPs for last place. The survey was conducted before the expenses crisis hit, though. And there was no question about bankers.

I mention all this because of the Chinese survey which hit the newswires earlier today, and which included a category not mentioned in the doctors' poll: prostitutes. They did quite well, coming third after farmers and "religious workers" (monks, presumably) but ahead of scientists and teachers. Government officials were even further down the list. China Daily however was pleased that "At least the scientists and officials have not slid into the least credible category, which consists of real estate developers, secretaries, agents, entertainers and directors."

Perhaps the low status of actors has something to do with the long shadow of Confucianism. Plato would have agreed: from his point of view, poetry and drama were suspect because they dealt in fiction, and their practitioners were therefore professional liars. And I suspect that an actor would be a more convincing con-man, other things being equal, than a dentist. Of course, the notion that doctors are inherently more trustworthy than MPs is seriously flawed: both are human beings, and people's basic level of honesty isn't determined by the work they do. There are at least as many dubious doctors as there are hucksterish lawyers. What such surveys might demonstrate, however, is that for some jobs devious conduct, even outright lying, is part of the definition.

Today's story, cut and pasted from an AFP release, asserts that "the survey found that 7.9% of respondents considered sex workers to be trustworthy, placing them third behind farmers and religious workers." 7.9% is a very low figure. Even the UK journalists got 19%. So either virtually no-one in China trusts anyone else, or it's a misplaced decimal point that nobody has bothered trying to correct. I've been unable to track down the original, which may only be available in Chinese. On the China Daily website there are some further details, however, including a decline in trust for official statistics:

More than 91 per cent of the respondents admitted that they would take government data with a pinch of salt. The same proportion was 79 per cent in 2007. The steep decline, pollsters concluded, reflects a "quite severe" drain of government credibility, which is obvious in recent "mass incidents".

That would be the Uighur riots, presumably.

It's interesting that the hyper-controlled, one-party Orwellian nightmare that is modern China (though I think there are proportionately fewer CCTV cameras than Britain) fails to produce public confidence in official statistics. Does anyone anywhere trust what the government tells them, I wonder. And if not, the billions spent annually on state advertising are not only a waste of money but actively counterproductive.

Also strangely familiar was the explanation for the low level of trust in local authority functionaries:

This may sound strange, because, geographically, local governments and their staff are closer to local realities; and, politically, they are there to take care of the citizens' day-to-day concerns.

But since local cadres report only to their superiors, and their appointment, promotion and removal has little, or nothing, to do with the community they are supposed to serve, it is only natural that they are preoccupied overwhelmingly with pleasing their bosses. In contrast to the people-friendly image of the central leadership, local cadres, as a collective, share a much less desirable reputation for their indifference to, if not disregard of, citizens.

Even for stability's sake, efforts must be made to restore the governments' credit record. The first step, however, is to put an end to public servants being alienated from public interest.


But back to the hookers, whose high score for trustworthiness has caught the world's imagination. I'm reminded of the immortal line from Pretty Woman, in which the asset-stripper tells the prostitute (or is it the other way around?) that "we both screw people for money". What would the result be if the question were asked in Britain or America, though? Arguably, the requirement of professional dishonesty fatal to the reputation of politicians and journalists would apply to the high end of the sex industry, where the girls are expected to feign at least some interest in the client's personality and/or appreciation for his lovemaking skills. At the bottom of the market, no such pretence can apply. Yet trust - on both sides - must be at a much higher premium because it is less certain. Is she a thief, or infected, or a policewoman? Is he a rapist, or violent, or diseased? Prostitutes and their clients have little option but to trust each other precisely because trustworthiness can never be assumed.

The majority of respondents wouldn't be clients, however, so the meaning of the question would be different: would you trust a person, knowing that they sell their body? That seems to be a very different sort of question from "do you trust a doctor?", where the point at issue appears to be professional ethics, but I'm not entirely sure that it is. People tend to be defined by their occupations, even outside the workplace, and deviations from the expected norm are looked upon as remarkable. During the recent Norwich by-election, Ian Gibson was widely praised (despite, went the subtext, the usually damning fact that he was an MP), while Harold Shipman was generally felt to have deserved particular obloquy because, as well as murdering hundreds of people, he was a doctor. That sentimental cliché, the tart with a heart, is interestingly double-edged: she is felt to be fundamentally a good person despite being on the game, yet at the same time she is imagined to be fairly typical of her profession. In that context it may be relevant that an unexpectedly high proportion of female Christian saints were repentant whores.

My guess is that trust in sex workers would be surprisingly high in this country, as it was surprisingly high in China, and that the result would challenge some common assumptions about how people view those involved in the sex industry. It would be worth doing the survey just for the headlines.