Reflection: A Call to Trust?

A Brief Reflection on the UCD TRUST Reading Group, Autumn 2022

Imelda Maher

When I saw Adam Kelly’s general email inviting the university staff and PhD community to join a reading group on Trust in the School of English as part of a larger Irish Research Council funded project, I paused.  I had engaged a little with the concept when writing about European Union referendums in Ireland and across Europe  – suggesting that trust in governments at the national and supranational levels was a factor in the proliferation of referendums on treaty reform in the EU. The concept is complex, messy even. I wonder what is the relationship between individual and collective trust, between the individual and institutions (broadly conceived and including law). Would a lateral engagement with the theme from a very different discipline provide insights? More prosaically, engaging with assigned readings each week for the group would deepen my knowledge and hopefully my understanding also.

I eventually emailed Adam to see if the group extended to legal scholars.  His answer? Did I have any readings on law and trust that the group could engage with one week? What would constitute a concise introduction to law and trust for an interdisciplinary audience?  There is not a huge literature that answers these criteria but in the end, I opted for Frank Cross’s article which I think the group found accessible, thanks in part to the introduction by Somsubhra Banerjee, a doctoral law student. While I regarded it as succinct it was still 89 pages long with 626 footnotes, in the tradition of American law reviews, although the group were assured the text made perfect sense without the need to dwell on the notes. This question of length and copious citation in law highlighted a key difference that emerged for me from the readings which is the different styles and conventions that apply in different disciplines.

Being part of an interdisciplinary group is itself is an experience that raises questions of trust.  Spatially, I had never been to the School of English and struggled to find it the first week, arriving late. The seminar room door was key coded so the group needed to be given access each week emphasising our visitor status. The discomfort in the room in the first week was apparent. The introductions suggested unsurprisingly that English scholars dominated but were still in a minority. The group was diverse in many ways. There were those of us from elsewhere: economics, law, linguistics, philosophy, sociology to name a few. There were several nationalities present, and different levels of experience, a mix of genders and ages.

As I edge towards later middle-age I return to the question of age now when I join a group. At the start of my career, the question of how young and inexperienced did I appear for me raised the question; what did I have to offer? In one sense, the question is still the same – what can I offer? and more fundamentally, can I belong here?  The calculation now is different – as I grow more aware of age discrimination I wonder if I will be seen as past it, with no part to play.  As an experienced academic I am also aware that while it is not for me to run the group, I implicitly have a responsibility to allow those newer voices to be heard.  Indeed, I am curious to hear what are seen as the themes, concerns, approaches that will inform the group discussion and that may well inform discussions for years to come.

From the first meeting, I relished not being in charge and still being in the privileged environment of a reading group in a research-intensive university in a democracy with respect for the rule of law.  Subject to necessary constraints of mutual respect, we are free to say what we wish. Maybe because of this freedom, I realise how far outside my comfort zone I am initially (a feeling not too far from how I feel writing this).  I feel ignorant of so much beyond the typically two readings each week. Thus on trust and reading, trust and art – what I have read for that day is all I know. This adds to my usual anxiety that I will say too much. My discomfort in silence will lead me to speak without depth and I’ll leave myself and my discipline down in the process.

Then there are the readings.  One major distinction for me is the light referencing that so contrasts with the law piece. Gallagher writing on the rise of fictionality seems so lightly referenced, I find myself asking if I can trust the piece. The group explains that she is a leading scholar, the style reflects the nature of the publication and we discuss how the standing of the author is part of the process of trust between the reader and the piece. The first week, the seminal Baier article is entitled Trust and Antitrust. I work on the governance of markets of which antitrust law is a component but this is not the antitrust of relevance here. Instead, I am in a very different discursive framework. The article frames the discussion for the entire term by using two examples: a baby’s trust in its mother/primary carer and torture. These mark the extremes of the concept for me – the instinct of the baby and the fear of the torture victim marking the limits of humanity. The baby’s trust/instinct becomes a leitmotif throughout our discussions marking the fuzzy edges of trust.

On blockchain, I welcome the chance to engage on a relatively new social phenomenon. Reflecting that novelty perhaps, we have a speaker. Paul Dylan-Ennis  from the UCD College of Business opens a door to a different world seeking to escape the constraints of our capitalist societies but leave me wondering if it is less of a disrupter than I thought. Since that discussion, I am more aware of blockchain in the news including calls for greater regulation.   

The richness of the themes: philosophy, history, sociology, the novel, liberalism and technology (distrust), technology and blockchain (distributed trust), law, art and reading, require us all to leave our intellectual comfort zones while gradually becoming more comfortable with the group, our discussions, our expressions of ignorance, frustration, and enlightenment. The range of readings shows that for a concept that is so salient to the lived experience, so fundamental to our social interactions and institutions it cannot – should not – be contained within a single discipline. For a concept like trust, we necessarily need to engage beyond our own discipline to interrogate its limits and fuzziness. Examining the relationship between art and trust, and between fiction and trust, has informed my understanding of the relationship between law and trust: the fragility of trust when lost, the need for it to be renewed and sustained for law and society to work. The knotty question of the relationship of trust between the text, author and reader (trust and reading) informs how law is drafted, interpreted and read.

Nonetheless, to reflect on how my understanding of my discipline has changed because of my participation in the reading group is too narrow a lens through which to describe this experience. It is a door to other disciplines for me, to other ways of thinking that left me at times unsure and profoundly challenged. It is these challenges that called on me to trust the group, trust Adam our initiator and guide throughout, and to trust the process of reading and discussion in a supportive and diverse scholarly gathering. It is this call to trust the process that in turn has broadened and deepened my understand of trust across disciplines and within the law.

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