When Social Contracts No Longer Work (2 of 3)

Social contracts are a set of agreements governing the overlap of personal freedom and social responsibility. Societies work in greater harmony when more people follow the tenets of a social contract, even when they are not aware that this is what they are doing. The agreements in a social contract tend to be implicit more than explicit and even when explicitly written into legislation or laws are subject to interpretation. This is why social contracts do not offer the same benefit to everyone in a society.

Social contracts will look different in different countries and cultures. For instance, in North America, motorcyclists generally abide by the same traffic laws as other motor vehicles, whereas in many other cultures motorcyclists have their own set of agreements which include weaving in, out, through and around other traffic. This is done in concert with those societies. It is an accepted norm. This is a simplistic example as social contracts cover so much more.

The degree of personal freedom versus social responsibility is the subject of much debate in many countries in these days of the Covid-19 Pandemic. It is largely focused around the wearing of face masks, social distancing and shelter-at-home guidance or dictates, depending on your worldview. The debate centers on the limiting of personal rights and freedoms for societal protection, which some fear will more permanently erode individual rights.

Many of our current social contracts have not varied much since the Age of Enlightenment and the publication of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book: The Social Contract. This book became a leading doctrine of political legitimacy for centuries. Many current social contracts are rooted in an age that looks nothing like today. It is time – it is past time – for the emergence of the new.

The social contracts that have been providing guidance for individual and collective behaviour have been falling apart for a long time now. Suddenly, it feels as if they are blowing up, introducing disruption of societal patterns and systems, potentially seeding chamos as we wrote about in our last blog. In the next blog we write about the conditions or tipping point that contribute to this disruption happening now.

Trevor Noah, in this video, said there is no contract if law and people in power don’t uphold their end of it. For legitimacy, we have to have agreement on what the principles are, believe that they will be equitably enforced and believe that everyone in that society will be treated fairly according to those principles. This has not been true for people of colour living in Western societies for a long time now, if ever. Nor has it been true for people living in poverty. But those who have benefited from the agreements have been trying to tenuously hold them in place. This is especially true for those who benefit from privilege and power. The more benefit, the more power, the more the resistance to redesigning systems for greater justice.

If you consider that social contracts have provided the basis for political decorum, it is ever clearer that they have been eroding over time. Eroding though is different than blatant disregard. When someone comes along and blatantly disregards the principles of a social contract, like the current President of the US and his cadre of collaborators, the social contract collapses.

People who have been trying to abide by the existing agreements for societal behaviour have been stymied by the President’s bullying behaviour even as a candidate, by his explicit references to sexism and his propensity to incite division and violence. He flouted the implicit rules of the social contract and nobody knew what to do about it. So he’s been getting away with abuse of power while those who should hold him in check either gleefully rub their hands together or watch in astonishment and paralysis.

We may be in the moment when all that changes with the momentum being gained by the Black Lives Matter protests and increasing spotlight on police brutality.

Having said that, people still trying to work within the purview of the old social contract have no footing and no sense of how to challenge blatant disregard. They have been floundering.

There is an urgent need for new, constructive and explicit social contracts where leadership and law enforcement are held accountable for administering them fairly and justly. We are hopeful that conditions might be right for the emergence of just such a thing. However, disrupting centuries of patterns and worldviews is not an easy thing to do.

The rise in the Black Lives Matter protests in the last two weeks, the growing awareness and awakening of white populations in recognizing the injustice of the current systems and social contracts experienced by people of colour, the loud silence of 8 minutes and 46 seconds and the increasing support for justice is encouraging.

We have walked these paths before. It will take dedicated, intentional and sustained repatterning to put in place a new social contract that is explicit, accountable and just for all.