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BLM Is a Response to the State Breaking Its Social Contract Says Trevor Noah | Op-Ed

As the protests against racism and police brutality in the United States continue into their second month, comedian and talk show host Trevor Noah’s June diagnosis remains relevant.

In Short: Noah’s reasoning for why things will not go back to normal rests on his understanding of what keeps societies together: the social contract.


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“These riots are disgusting. This is not how a society should be run. You do not loot and you do not burn. This is not how a society is built.”

This is how South African comedian, political commentator, and The Daily Show host Trevor Noah summarized much of the criticism he saw directed at the riots against police brutality throughout the United States. 

  • His ten-minute video posted on Twitter replying to this criticism went viral and used simplified political theory to explain why the US riots were happening. 

Noah began by defining the foundation of his argument: society. 

“[Society] is a contract that we sign as human beings amongst each other… where we say ‘amongst this group of us we agree on common rules, common ideals, and common practices that are going to define us,” he said. 

Briefly, Noah’s argument was the following:

  • Society’s contract is only as strong as those enforcing it. Those leading the country and their agents – like the police – should lead by example.
  • Black Americans and other people of colour have seen police officers, through patterns of police brutality like George Floyd’s murder, fail to hold up their end of the deal for decades.
  • Because of this breach of contract, fed-up citizens have no incentive to hold up their side of the bargain–not to steal, loot, or disobey.

As many undergraduates in Canada and the US know, this is broadly the same theory advanced by social contract theorists such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 

  • This theory applies to the United States, as its constitution is largely accepted to have been inspired by John Locke’s writings.
  • Specifically, Locke argued that if a government were to disrespect its commitment to its citizens, then those citizens can rightfully overthrow it.

So what is the social contract: It’s a theory of what makes the state’s authority over the individual acceptable, or legitimate. While different philosophers differ on the details, they share the following basic ideas:

  • Societies are a contract between the government and citizens ensuring the well-being of the individuals involved. 
  • The government authority’s legitimacy is based on it upholding its end of the contract, to secure the rights and safety of its citizens.
  • If the government does not do so, citizens are not only allowed but expected to disobey it to bring about change.

Trevor Noah sees the social contract similarly, arguing that it is only as strong as those enforcing it.

  • In other words, those leading the country and their agents – like the police – should lead by example.

In the case of the United States, Noah uses the social contract to understand the looting and protesting following George Floyd’s death. Specifically:

  • Black Americans and other people of colour have seen police officers, through patterns of police brutality like George Floyd’s murder, fail to hold up their end of the deal for decades.
  • Because of this breach of contract, fed-up citizens have no incentive to hold up their side of the bargain–not to steal, loot, or disobey.

The Bottom Line: Trevor Noah is largely echoing Martin Luther King Jr. when he said “A riot is the voice of the unheard.”

  • Until the different levels of government in the United States begin honouring their end of the social contract, Noah argues, citizens have no reason to honour theirs. 

As the city council of Minneapolis—George Floyd’s hometown—showed last month by accepting to disband its police force, there’s hope that the social contract may eventually be upheld. Until then, protestors have shown no signs of giving up.


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