Can humanity live without borders?

ESSAY: There is little enlightened about being ‘post-borders’ today.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

On 16 March 2016, Frank Furedi gave the keynote lecture at the Philosophy Festival in Leuven, Belgium. Here is an edited version of what he said.

‘When are we going to reach the border?’, asked my older sister on a wet and cold November night back in 1956. The Furedi family was on the move, anxious to escape the Stalinist regime in Hungary and cross the border to Austria. For us at that moment, the border to the West appeared as a magical door to a new wonderful future. From the perspective of history, we were fortunate; as suggested by the recent experience of many refugees coming to Europe, borders are often less magical doors than insurmountable walls.

Europe, as well as many other parts of the world, has become obsessed with borders. Debates about borders are sharply polarised, and they’re often ill-informed. Some regard borders as an affront to the human condition; others are convinced that borders make up the very foundation of their security. As the debate about Europe’s borders rages on, it is worth taking a step back and asking this question: Can humanity live without borders?

A contradictory experience

The human experience of borders is a contradictory one. People are continually drawing boundary lines. At the same time, throughout history, and especially in modern times, people have tried to transcend the borders established by their ancestors. Often, borders are portrayed as a relic of the past. In recent decades, advocates of globalisation have insisted that a more globalised world, with greater movement of goods, services and people, would make borders redundant. And yet the record of globalisation indicates that, the expansion of mobility notwithstanding, borders in their geographical, symbolic and virtual forms remain very salient features of our lives.

Within Europe, and also within many national communities, borders are experienced differentially. Well-off, secure, sophisticated travellers perceive of border controls, like American immigration procedures, as an annoyance and an unnecessary obstacle in their lives. Others, however, especially those who are less travelled and more community-bound, regard borders as essential to their security – both their psychological and cultural security. They often regard the relaxation of controls on migration as antithetical to their wellbeing. Throughout history, the fundamental human aspiration to move freely and cross boundaries has coexisted with the fundamental human yearning for the reassurance provided by secure borders. Human beings have migrated throughout history, and often these well-travelled people later turn their energies towards drawing borders.

And this isn’t just about geographical borders. The drawing of borders is a psychological and cultural phenomenon, too. People’s identity and sense of belonging and difference depend on having a sense of borders. The drawing of borders is a precondition for human cognition. For example, through the medium of culture individuals internalise the line, the border, between the sacred and the profane, between good and evil, between adult and child. Although these distinctions can appear as arbitrary, they provide the cultural resources through which people understand their day-to-day lives.

In 1909, the remarkable German sociologist Georg Simmel gave us an eloquent reminder of the human impulse to draw borders: ‘Only to humanity, in contrast to nature, has the right to connect and separate been granted, and in the distinctive manner that one of these activities is always the presupposition of the other.’

In his essay ‘Bridge and Door’, Simmel highlighted the surprisingly intimate relationship between separation and connection. He wrote that ‘we can only sense those things to be related which we have previously somehow isolated from one another; things must first be separated from one another in order to be together’. This imperative to connect and separate transcends the realm of physical boundaries. He argued that ‘in the immediate as well as the symbolic sense, in the physical as well as the intellectual sense, we are at any moment those who separate the connection or connect the separate’.

So borders are not just physical and geographical realities; they also have a powerful symbolic significance through which communities gain insights into themselves and the meaning of their existence. People’s very sense of social reality is often forged, and internalised, through their engagement with symbolic boundaries. These boundaries – between the ‘self’ and ‘other’ – often influence people’s sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Today, as in the past, our attitudes towards physical and spatial borders are influenced by our attitudes towards symbolic borders.

Society’s turn away from ‘holding the line’

My view is that contemporary societies, and especially their cultural and political elites, find it difficult to gain meaning from symbolic borders. Academic literature and much social commentary now implicitly question the moral status and even the legitimacy of borders. Thinkers frequently highlight the arbitrary and fluid nature of borders. Numerous social theorists insist that borders have become more porous. Often influenced by postmodernist theories – particularly those of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze – these thinkers depict borders as indeterminate and artificial constructions. The so-called artificiality of the borders between East and West, between civilised and uncivilised, or between Europe and Asia, is held up as evidence of the broader meaningless of all physical borders.

The tendency to view borders, and indeed any strongly drawn distinction, in a negative light is widespread in contemporary popular culture. Being ‘post-border’ or ‘beyond borders’ is now considered a positive value. Just Google the words ‘without borders’: what you’ll find is not just Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) but a bewildering array of organisations that aspire to achieve the status of being ‘without borders’. Engineers, musicians, chemists, veterinarians, executives, librarians, builders, plumbers, lawyers, astronomers, creatives, journalists, rabbis, herbalists , acupuncturists, clowns… these are just some of the occupational groups now flaunting their core value of being ‘without borders’.

Some see this enthusiasm for being ‘without borders’ as an expression of genuine risk-taking, of a bold and pioneering desire to explore the unknown. And it would indeed be inspiring if this attempt to go beyond borders really did represent an endorsement of the enlightened, Kantian notion of cosmopolitanism and the aspiration to be a ‘citizen of the world’. Unfortunately, however, although there are numerous contradictory impulses fuelling this cultural reaction against borders, the dominant driver is an anxiety about taking responsibility for the drawing of symbolic distinctions and clear lines.

The reaction against borders runs parallel with a loss of nerve about making moral distinctions, underpinned by a reluctance to make any big or serious value judgments. One of the most serious problems afflicting the West today is the unwillingness to ‘hold the line’ – and this now influences even how nation states behave and conceive of themselves.

This crisis of ‘holding the line’ poses serious problems for parents, for example. Parents know that children cannot be properly socialised unless they can learn to draw lines, respect rules, and gradually acquire the habit of self-control. Testing boundaries is of course a central part of children’s development. And sometimes, a child’s defiance of parental authority can be a creative expression of their personality. Other forms of defiance, however, can be positively dangerous. For a parent, knowing when to hold the line and when to overlook bad behaviour is a difficult thing to negotiate. Matters are complicated by the fact that in the 21st century, discipline is increasingly considered to be outdated. More importantly, many parents are concerned that holding the line will make their children turn against them. And Western parents who fear that disciplinary measures could turn their kids against them will often resort to bribery, or simply give in, in order to avoid holding the line.

The problem of holding the line is linked to society’s reluctance to uphold the symbolic border that divides adults from children. As I argued in my book Paranoid Parenting, Western society now finds it difficult to answer the question, ‘Where do we draw the line between adulthood and childhood?’. In some cases, children are cast in the role of ‘little adults’ and are deemed capable of making informed choices. Some advocates of the ‘democratisation’ of the family argue that children are capable of bearing the responsibilities that come with having adult rights. This idea has been codified in the doctrine of children’s rights.

Formally, societies still maintain a distinction between children and adults, of course. They have an age of sexual consent and codify an age at which young people may legally assume adult responsibilities. In practice, however, in the realm of informal social and cultural life, the distinction between adults and children has become blurred.

Today’s lack of clarity about where to draw the border between childhood and adulthood is not simply an issue of confused childrearing. Rather, it speaks to profound confusions about the meaning of adulthood, leading to a reluctance to embrace or exercise the ideal of adult authority. Ignoring the generational divide, and treating kids in a similar way to how we treat adults, is now considered to be a more enlightened approach to life, certainly more enlightened than maintaining apparently old-fashioned boundaries between generations.

So for some time now, parents, teachers, and other adults involved with children have gone out of their way to cross the generational divide and become young people’s friends, rather than their moral guides and mentors. This unconscious process of infantilisation – where adults bring themselves down to the level of children and young people – shows that the classical generational boundary has little meaning today. The unease with generational boundaries has given rise to a situation where becoming an adult has come to be considered a negative and even frightening thing. Consequently, adolescence is extending all the time, into the late twenties and even further, as more and more young people try to avoid crossing the border into the dark territory of adulthood.

Western society’s ambivalence towards symbolic borders can also be seen, very strikingly, in the corrosion of the line that divides the private sphere from the public sphere. Since the dawn of modernity, the private sphere has been divided from the public sphere by a border that is both symbolic and physical. The symbolic site of privacy usually rests on a physical and spatial foundation: a house or an apartment or sometimes just a room. This space, which is usually captured by the metaphor of ‘home’, was, until fairly recently, looked upon as being physically and symbolically different to the public sphere. However, today there are regular calls to weaken the border separating the private from the public, and they are even more explicit than the calls to erode the line that divides childhood from adulthood.

Although there is rarely any explicit political invective or open moral condemnation of the idea of privacy, it is nonetheless under constant assault from a variety of sources. Society’s rhetorical affirmation of the right to privacy runs in parallel with a practical erosion of private life. The main argument for making the boundary between private and public more porous is the idea that this border protects violent husbands and fathers, and other abusers, from the public gaze. Hostility to the private sphere is built on a new outlook that depicts family life and intimate life as sites of abuse, exploitation and violence. Policymakers and moralists clamour for more public scrutiny of private life. Cultural feminists in particular have developed a trenchant critique of private life.

Privacy is frequently referred to as a ‘cloak’ or a ‘sham’ that allows unspeakable horrors to take place in homes. The assumption is that, left to their own devices, and away from public view, people will display destructive emotions. Men in particular are charged with using the privilege of privacy to terrorise women and children. This unflattering view of intimate relationships has nurtured the idea that everyone is under threat from imminent victimisation. From this standpoint, privacy has virtually no redeeming features at all.

What these critics of privacy forget is that the separation of the public and private spheres, and the strengthening of the boundary between them, has been absolutely essential to the emergence of the modern individual. People’s aspiration for autonomy and identity cannot be entirely resolved in the public sphere. The private sphere provides a potential space for reflection, and for the development of personality itself. Intimate relationships require privacy if they are not to disintegrate under the pressure of public scrutiny. Whatever problems might exist in the private sphere, that sphere is nonetheless the prerequisite for the exercise of moral autonomy.

Individual autonomy and self-determination, like sovereignty, are cultivated in spaces that are protected by borders. This border could be either physical or symbolic, protected by law or simply by custom; but what is important is that it provides the space and the opportunity for the cultivation of an identity, whether an individual or collective one.

Critics of borders insist that borders are social constructions, and are both artificial and arbitrary. It can feel difficult to disagree with this point. Anyone looking at a map of the world will be struck by the arbitrary character of many nations and territories. Many of the frontiers of Africa are drawn in straight lines, which are testimony to the lack of imagination among old colonising powers. No border is beyond question. For example, the boundary between children and adults is frequently violated by youngsters who grow up faster than others. Borders between nations are continually tested, too, by politicians, armies, internet providers, businesses, smugglers and, of course, migrants.

However, borders are not simply artificial social constructions. They are, as Simmel noted, the physical or symbolic expressions of a social need. Not everyone can be expected to like a specific border, but this medium of division, this tool of separation and thus potential connection, expresses the needs and aspirations of people and of societies. As Simmel observed: ‘Not the state, not the pieces of property, not the city district, and not the county district limit one another, but rather the inhabitants or owners exercise reciprocal impact.’ It is through reciprocal human interaction that borders gain significance. Whether these borders then become impenetrable walls or open doors is determined by the values and attitudes that prevail in a given society, by what we think and feel at a given time.

In defence of borders

However one views borders, it is important that we acknowledge that humanity has always been in the business of drawing lines. Symbolic borders embody values that give people a sense of moral equilibrium and help them lead their lives. The human imagination often asks us to soar above borders in order to experience the unknown. But even such flights of imagination have, as their precondition, a sense of limits, of boundaries that must be overcome. When the Furedi family crossed the Hungarian border into Austria in November 1956, we were in no doubt that the world needed to ‘hold the line’, this line we were crossing, which separated two very different ways of life.

Boundaries are necessary for the flourishing of humanity. Simply to reject them on account of their seemingly arbitrary character is an act of evasion. Western society’s estrangement from borders is not a progressive step forward – rather it expresses a crisis of nerve in relation to holding the line. Western society has embraced the evasive tactic of non-judgmentalism. Now it must relearn the value of making distinctions. It needs to overcome its reluctance to make judgments of value, and stop being afraid to hold the line. In this context, it is essential to reject the idea that borders between nations are simply an artificial prop, unworthy things designed merely to keep people out. Borders are essential for the maintenance of national sovereignty, which is so far the only foundation that humanity has discovered for the institutionalisation of democratic accountability. Without borders, a citizen becomes a subject – subject to a power that cannot be realistically held to account.

That the idea of sovereignty has suffered the same fate as autonomy and privacy is not surprising. These are all interlinked Enlightenment values that presuppose human beings’ capacity to make judgments about life, behaviour and the future. Those thinkers and commentators who think that people who desperately cling to the idea of borders are on the moral low ground should think again. For it is their own reluctance to hold the line and take borders seriously that represents a rejection of modernity’s fundamental values of sovereignty, autonomy, and the separation of the private and the public.

The current debate about migration, and what, if anything, European borders should mean in the 21st century, is not simply an outcome of the crises in Syria, Libya and Afghanistan. More fundamentally, it is founded upon a pre-existing mood of confusion about the meaning of a nation in the context of the European Union. The fact that Western European borders are losing their meaning is really linked to the growing disenchantment with what it means to be German, or Dutch, or British. The migrant question is as intimately bound up with this corrosion of Western European nations’ sense of self as it is with the disarray in the Middle East and north Africa.

The desire to transcend the limitations of borders is often a daring and worthy one. But in the current historical context, there is nothing courageous about not taking borders seriously; on the contrary, it is an expression of a refusal to take responsibility in the face of uncertainty.

The debate about borders in Europe is driven by two contradictory, but very human, passions. The human aspiration for freedom of mobility is clashing with people’s existential need for a sense of security. Neither of these sentiments can be ignored, which means Europe has some very difficult choices to make. The answer to this current crisis lies somewhere in the reconciliation of the aspiration for freedom of movement with the existential need for spatial and symbolic security, and in protecting, not demolishing, the Enlightenment ideal of the boundary between things.

Frank Furedi is a sociologist and commentator. His latest book, Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter, is published by Bloomsbury Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon UK.)

Picture by: Joe Klamar / Getty Images.

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Topics Politics


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