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Ethics, Social & Political Philosophy

The Evolving Social Contract

Bonnie Stewart has written eloquently this week about the idea of the social contract in online spheres:

The idea of the social contract originates with political philosophy. Philosophy’s finer points aren’t exactly experiencing what you’d call a cultural heyday, at the moment, but suffice to say the idea’s a relic of the Enlightenment, with earlier origins in the Biblical covenant and in Greece and Rome. It connotes the relationship we all have to the structures of power and order in our societies.

The social contract, at its simplest, is about what we expect from others and ourselves: the deal we believe we’re in regarding the give and take of rights, freedoms, and responsibilities. Most forms of the social contract, historically, argue for the giving over of certain freedoms – though what these are and how they are expressed can vary – in exchange for protections of the state or the civilizing influence of society.

We used to, in short, make those deals with some kind of monolithic power – a God or a state or what have you. That was the old school social contract. At some level, most of us are still kind of inclined or trained in this direction, and the divide between God and state – or least interpretations of what ‘state’ means and what rights and freedoms are involved – may serve to explain the increasing partisanship and vitriol in contemporary postmodern politics. Red states and blue states aren’t necessarily in the same social contract.

But it’s even more complex than that. We now live in some crazy kind of incarnation of McLuhan’s global village: the world’s biggest small town. Most of us are wired into some kind of relationship with our capitalist, consumerist, media society, by our bank cards and our status as citizens of postmodern globalized nation states. Our society operates – as do an increasing number of us at the individual level – more on network logic than on the one-to-many logic of hierarchical monoliths like religion and the state.

So we are, in our day to day interactions as humans in the 21st century, constantly trying to establish and operate within the terms of unspoken and often hugely divergent social contracts. We are no longer just entering into an implicit deal with the powers-that-be. We are each others’ powers-that-be.

And we need to learn to navigate those negotiations openly and explicitly; to own the power we have and not wait for the big and mighty to make it all better for us.

What struck me about Bonnie’s post is not only the future-application of the discussion to our philosophy class’ Social & Political Philosophy unit, but also what it lends us in attempting to address the recent tragic death of Coquitlam resident Amanda Todd. As local, national and international media has focused largely on the cyber-bullying aspect of the story, I have been reluctant to ascribe to this lens that seems to view our online and physical environments as distinct separate spaces. Bonnie says it better:

Make no mistake, Amanda Todd was cyber-bullied. Her network of peers appear to have contributed to her shaming via Facebook. But if a kid were stalked by a pimp on a school playground and the pimp then manipulated the playground gang into participating in the abuse, we wouldn’t frame the story as a bullying story, first and foremost.

This is a story about abuse of the power of the internet, first and foremost. It’s about the ways in which anonymity enables people to prey on the vulnerable, and about the ways in which our social contract has not yet worked out the lines between the right to free speech and the ways in which anonymous speech *can* bring out the absolute worst in those who want to exercise more power than their embodied lives necessarily afford them.

Not only do the online and physical interact, they are facets of the same reality. “We are all bodies somewhere,” Bonnie says. Indeed, and wherever it occurs, a hurt is a hurt is a hurt.

As I mentioned, we will be addressing the idea of the social contract as we move through our ethics, social and political philosophy units, but I wanted to share Bonnie’s post with you lest more time pass between what is in the transitional phase – for us especially here in Coquitlam – between a raw and open personal wound in our community and a more global political, journalistic and cultural spectacle (another hallmark of the Internet era). Because for those of you taking this course – face to face, especially, but those of you in our wider circle as well – we are exploring this online terrain and applying our philosophical lens to the nature of knowledge and the communities we can create together, and I am curious to hear your thoughts as inhabitants of this/these worlds who likely don’t feel that they are altogether separate.

I’m chiefly interested (though this list isn’t exhaustive) in:

  • How does the anonymity of the Internet create a challenge for our existing idea(s) of the Social Contract?
  • How might we address the problems created by an anonymous web that maintains our sense of freedom that not only created the Internet, but which it was created to enable?
  • Will events like these create the necessity that begets the articulation of an evolved Social Contract that is able more explicitly to make “this giant small town where we all live” more livable?

While we might not get ‘there’ in the curriculum for another few weeks, consider these questions and Bonnie’s post, as open for discussion in the meantime. I don’t expect us to reach much in the way of a concrete understanding. But I do heartily believe that this discussion is one of the first steps toward creating that place where we all might belong.

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About bryanjack

HS Gifted program teacher interested in the world out there, the world in here, and blending the two at every opportunity.

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