Especially during election season, it seems the use of the phrase social contract gets a boost in frequency. It is like watching 1,400 sales of Prince’s albums in the day before his death soar to .75 million the day after. One party is much more likely to use the expression, the other preferring words like fiscal and greatness. One view suggests community interdependence; the other, individuality. The historical fictions that candidates trot out either support or refute the social contract.
What is this social contract? Where do we sign? What if we don’t sign?
I recall signing contracts to pay back a loan for my house and to purchase cars. I am sure I signed others to repay a student loan. Then there are the contracts for work to be completed by me or someone else for which I pledged to pay.
There was also a contract between my dad and my family. He left us when I was four and returned after many months. He knew the contract had been broken and by way of mending the breech, he took me on a trip several years later to trace with me where he had purportedly gone. One stop we made along the way was in Missouri to see the boyhood home of Mark Twain.
There was the contract between Paul and me and our neighbors. We worked hard to be good to Doris and Bob. They worked to be good to us as well. We all knew our contract, though never signed, was a success when Doris told us in the car one night after a late dinner to not introduce her as our neighbor ever again. She wanted to be called our friend.
Paul and I had a contract with each other, too. It had lots of where as’s and where for’s in it. We had agreements about what to call each other, how much honesty was required under what circumstances, what we could tell others without telling each other first, and more. What the contract did not have was until the end of time. We both agreed we didn’t want to be around until the end of time.
I thought I had an unwritten contract with law enforcement. It included being impartial and being protected and being respectful and being obedient. I knew what part of that was mine and what part of that was theirs. While the contract was unwritten and unsigned, I do recall the visits in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade when the rules were laid out: when you are scared, come toward us.
Last week, law enforcement officers in Ohio told residents to protect themselves with weapons if they felt afraid after a series of murders were reported. Somehow, that felt to me like the contract had been broken. When unarmed Black teens and children have been killed by police, it seemed to me that the contract had been broken. When the legislature and governor of Wisconsin approved concealed weapons and blockaded residents from knowing who had them, I was pretty confident that the contract had been broken. I am positive it is broken as the same people ponder allowing weapons on college campuses.
I believe that the social contract — that agreement that in community we depend on one another and, with the government of the people, we surrender some individual liberty for the sake of the rights of us all – that social contract is not dead. But, I also believe that we do not honor the contract understood by, and literally signed by, our ancestors. Instead, many of us ascribe to some misguided romantic beliefs about opportunity and boot straps and rigid social order.
Our interdependence is vital to community. Keeping weapons like we are part of a noble frontier posse ignores the genocide that these posses were intended to enforce. Keeping weapons degrades our social contract. Keeping weapons also results in unintended and unexpected deaths. I do not plan to call these weapons guns. To do so belies their intended use and confuses them with hunting rifles used by actual hunters. The NRA and other proponents of violence would have us believe that they are protecting our Second Amendment rights. That is false. They are rather eroding the social contract that identifies our inalienable right to our lives.
Don’t you meddle with old unloaded firearms; they are the most deadly and unerring things that have ever been created by man. You don’t have to take any pains at all with them; you don’t have to have a rest, you don’t have to have any sights on the gun, you don’t have to take aim, even. No, you just pick out a relative and bang away, and you are sure to get him. A youth who can’t hit a cathedral at thirty yards with a Gatling gun in three quarters of an hour, can take up an old empty musket and bag his grandmother every time, at a hundred.
— Mark Twain, 1882