The Social Covenant

Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald penned an interesting article recently about the social covenant we all assume is in place. One might call them social norms, but it seems to me “covenant” is also an appropriate moniker because these norms speak to a connection between people. Pitts offers examples: “You don’t stand facing the back wall of an elevator. In heavy traffic, you take turns merging. You stop at the red light even when the street is deserted.” I am sure we can all add our own favorite covenantal norms. I would offer, “you don’t talk during a movie.”

Pitts wrote the article in the shadow of the recent spate of flash mob robberies being reported of late. “It’s happened in California, Illinois, Minnesota and Maryland. Retailers ranging from Nordstrom to 7-Eleven have been hit.” Pitts considers this phenomena in the light of our assumed social norms. I am pretty sure most of us assume flash-mob robbery was always on the list – maybe not on the Viking raiders’ list – but on ours.

There are lots of writers who have addressed this latter-day phenomena. “For some, the search for answers will be an invitation to uncork pet theories about poverty, permissiveness or punishment. But none of those things is unique to this era.” Pitts notes that those things have always been present. Granted that communications technology makes the organization of such mobs easier and more instantaneous than in years past, but what is it about these times that gave genesis to these acts? And what is it that makes non-participants willing to accept the “loot” as was the case in a recent Nordstroms’ robbery when the thieves began to toss the goods out to the crowd gathering?

Pitts agrees that there is a criminal element but writes: “How much do you want to bet most of them will turn out to be ordinary, workaday folk who got the word there was free stuff to be had, and all you had to do was take it, like some giddy holiday from social norms?”  If you were outside Nordstroms would you walk away with the fruits of someone else’s larceny? Would you speak out? Would you be shocked.

Pitts thinks that what might be unique about these times is that we are surrounded by reported shattering of the social covenant. He writes: “we’ve seen police and other authority figures exempt themselves from mask and vaccine mandates — and dare mayors and governors to do anything about it. We’ve seen ex-public officials thumb their noses at congressional subpoenas. We’ve seen a seditionist mob breach the U.S. Capitol and be lionized for it by certain members of Congress and the media.” Current and retired members of Congress just shake their heads at the recent public behavior of House members from Georgia and Colorado who seem more interested in monetizing their social media channels than in serving the people of their districts with even a modicum of civility.

“Worst of all, we’ve seen little in the way of accountability for any of it. So the question isn’t how ordinary people could have gotten the idea a holiday from social norms was possible, but how could they have not? Everywhere you look, someone else is seceding from the covenants that make it possible for civil society to function. Which makes these smash-and-grab robberies seem less a mystery and more just another troubling reflection of our times.”


Leonard Pitts Jr.
Miami Herald

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