For hundreds of years, philosophers, most prominently Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, have spoken of a purported social contract between people. The idea of the social contract is that all people have an obligation to each other out of the desire to maintain peace.
This obligation translates into our creation of government and voluntarily handing over of our rights to a monarch or democratically elected leader who enforces the social contract in the form justice.
Social contract theory is incredibly popular among scholars, and it is visible in the way people interact with each other every day: we are not violent with strangers who bump into us on the street because inciting violence does not serve in our best interest.
Philosopher David Hume famously made a case against the existence of a social contract. He said that because people, generations down the line, did not opt-in to the governments which rule over them, the supposed social contract whereby all people are opting into this system of having a leader and acting in a certain way towards others could not possibly exist. This argument is a good one, and while social contract theory remains widely accepted, Hume brings up an important point: in the twenty-first century, people living in countries with long-standing, stable governments never had the opportunity to opt-in, or in many instances, realistically opt-out of that system.
That seems to have changed.
Just before 3:00am eastern standard time on November 9, 2016 businessman and reality show star Donald J. Trump was announced 45th President-elect of the United States of America.
If there was a social contract in America, it’s over.
The social contract operates on the assumption that we have a degree of mutual respect for each other and do not want to live in a society where certain social groups are marginalized because it could result in violence and general chaos, setting aside the basic principles of human rights and decency under which we generally suppose governments and individuals to act.
The attitudes and actions of Mr. Trump generally contradict this notion. From misogynistic to racist comments and tweets, and a demonstrated lack of propriety when dealing with aspects of international relations, Mr. Trump shows a disregard for any given social contract. While one individual opting-out of the social contract that the rest of society upholds is not an uncommon phenomenon, throngs of people acting in violation of the contract should call our attention. Individuals with differing values choose to subscribe to contracts tied with different beliefs in the social system quite often, though they typically do so while upholding those aspects of the prevailing contract necessary for maintaining peace and order in society. However, in the period following Mr. Trump’s election we have paid witness to the mass abandonment of the social contract, or any pretense of its existence. Without this unspoken agreement binding us together in general understanding and respect for each other, we are faced with some difficult questions.
Firstly, who do you trust? If there is one thing to take away from this election (aside of course from the result and all the things associated with that) it is perhaps the power of the dissemination of misinformation. Mr. Trump has shown us that facts are — apparently — relative, if you don’t like the numbers, find a way to change them. He has shown us that to a shocking number of individuals the difference between fact and opinion is a translucent line that can be crossed and blurred without incurring personal damages or repercussions. When we have no commitment to each other to share the truth, then how do we know who is telling the truth? The US election was a prime example of how disinformation and a lack of confidence in what were once considered to be reliable media sources can result in an imbalance of information and make it difficult for us to determine fact from fiction. When we are told by one side that sources like The Washington Post, a newspaper long heralded as an authority on political reporting, is telling lies, and the other side reminds us again and again not to hearken Fox News because it is twisting reality, we lose any ability to safely determine where the truth exists, if it does. It is the duty to tell the truth when it matters; the sense of responsibility to do this is what we are threatened to lose. It is of course possible that we are inherently driven to tell the truth, regardless of an unspoken agreement, but more likely (given the way we so often behave towards each other) that we will favour the ease of omission over the toil of truth.
Second, how do we live in a world of myriad personal differences? The multiculturalism of the world; the many variations in our shading and beliefs, is incredibly beautiful, but also requires a degree of tolerance that can be difficult to uphold. We tolerate, accept, and even embrace the differences between us because we have a responsibility to understand and respect the differences between ourselves, it allows us to live cohesively together. Now we see these differences flaunted as negatives, as a reason to fear and divide. This idea isn’t new, it has created problems in different societies across the globe throughout history. In the wake of the election results being announced there has been a surge of violence towards Muslims and homosexuals in red and blue states. If this is an indication of what society is without the social contract, we are in for nerve-wracking times. If our only reason to act or not act towards others in a negative or even violent fashion is the unspoken contract that we sign by function of our birth, then with its dissolution there is nothing to prevent the worst of human behaviour to become normalized, an incredibly dangerous position to be in.
There is no use in trying to pretend this sudden outbreak of violence towards minority groups, visible and invisible, is not directly related to the words preached by Mr. Trump during his campaign. When our leaders abandon one of the fundamental pillars of the social contract those in North America have been so lucky to uphold-that of acceptance-with no consequences, it is not long before the masses begin to adopt the same ideology. When tolerance and acceptance break down, it is merely the beginning of a chain reaction that will topple the carefully cultivated social practices and values we have come to agree upon over generations of hard work.
The accord has been broken, the pretense abandoned. We are now faced with the question of whether the world we live in, at least in North America, can survive humanity without the agreement to act reasonably, responsibly, and kindly towards those around us. The people have spoken, and they have spoken for the end of what has so long safeguarded us against some of the worst our species has to offer. It was far from a perfect contract, individuals and communities often fell through the cracks of our good behaviour, but it prevented day-to-day racism, misogyny, and xenophobia that we have seen emerge with a new confidence since November’s election. The social contract did not dissolve from becoming obsolete. There was an undeniable conscious choice made by a sizable portion of the population, one that we may not be able to undo for a very long time.