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People Need Borders

Louise Perry reviews Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries, by Frank Furedi

Watching our Prime Minister ambling across the Chequers lawn with Dilyn, the Jack Russell cross, and waxing lyrical about his new fitness regime, I could vividly imagine the expression on Frank Furedi’s face. The launch last week of the government’s new anti-obesity drive offered an opportunity for Boris Johnson to ‘open up’ about his own struggles with his weight. It also offered a perfect example of the dissolution of the border between the private and the public spheres, just one of the borders that Furedi is concerned with in his new book, Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries.

The 1960s project has successfully redefined terms like ‘judgmental’ and ‘discriminatory’ into pejoratives

A century ago, it would have been unthinkable for a Prime Minister to speak about his personal habits with so little restraint, or indeed for the government to propose such a paternalistic programme of health interventions, attempting to meddle in how the nation chooses to eat, drink, and exercise. But, argues Furedi, borders that were once self-evident – between nation states, public and private, children and adults, men and women – are now called into question by a cultural elite mistrustful of the very concept.

Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries, by Frank Furedi

It’s a bold thesis and, mostly, a persuasive one. Furedi begins with several chapters on immigration and the conflict between those who value the stability and integrity of a bordered nation state, and those who see the existence of national borders as, at best, a necessary evil and, at worst, a terrible injustice.

Furedi sees this immigration debate within the context of a much grander intellectual project, originating in the 1960s, that casts doubt on the validity of any form of border. This project has successfully redefined terms like ‘judgmental’, ‘moralising’, and ‘discriminatory’ into pejoratives, since to draw any clear line between one category and another is assumed by those lost in the ‘borderless imagination’ to be somehow suspect.

Instead, these intellectuals focus obsessively on transgression, transformation, transnationalism, and – yes – transgenderism. This last form of trans-ing is, to Furedi’s mind, the apotheosis of the assault on binaries. The anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote in 1949 that ‘we know of no culture that has said, articulately, that there is no difference between men and women’ – and yet here we are, alone in the anthropological record, arguing about whether clownfish might be transgender. Without even a recognition of this, most obvious of borders, how are we to make sense of the world?

Furedi points out the sinister psychological effect of borderless thinking:

Since the beginning of time, people’s existential need for security has expressed itself through attempts to draw lines and construct borders. Despite the influence of the borderless zeitgeist, human beings rely on boundaries no less than in the past: society cannot exist without the assistance they give to people attempting to interpret their experience and give meaning to their lives.

And he argues that the loss of borders has left us adrift, so much so that we are now seeing new, chaotic systems of meaning rushing in to fill the gap. The woke Left erects fierce borders between, for instance, the ‘cancelled’ and the ‘uncancelled’, and is ‘not averse to making distinctions between powerful and powerless, exploiter and exploited, oppressed and oppressor, or victim and victimiser.’ There has also been a fortification of the border between cultures, with any infraction condemned as ‘cultural appropriation’. In much the same way, we are now seeing the void left by Christianity filled by an ersatz political religion that has no millennia-old intellectual tradition to reinforce it. It turns out that’s it’s actually quite tricky to extirpate fundamental components of human psychology, binary thinking being one of them.

Furedi’s theory is ambitious, and at times he attempts to apply it to examples that don’t quite fit. Although I am convinced by his claim that a kind of emotional incontinence has taken hold in our culture, with reality TV and social media acting as an unholy vehicle for over-sharing, I’m not quite convinced that state incursions into the private sphere are always to be condemned. On obesity for instance, is it not very much within the government’s purview to attempt to reduce the strain on the public purse by encouraging healthier living? And I certainly don’t share Furedi’s alarm over the increasing attention paid to violence within the home. Where he sees an erosion of the public/private distinction, I see a long overdue effort at preventing and punishing crime.

Furedi places a lot of emphasis – too much, perhaps – on the role of academics in generating the ‘borderless imagination’, but he has less to say on why anyone outside of the academy would ever have been receptive. He comes close at times, for instance observing that:

In the face of extraordinary technological and social changes, older generations lost confidence in the values into which they were acculturated, and society has found it difficult to provide its adult members with a compelling narrative for socialisation.

But then doesn’t pursue the mechanism by which these social and technological changes might have led to the rejection of borders. Could the internet, for instance, have accelerated a trend that had already been brewing for several decades, bringing the outside world into the privacy of the home, and allowing users to develop an online persona quite different from their day-to-day identities? I would have liked to read more on the historical origins of the phenomenon Furedi identifies.

But what the book does very well is highlight the malaise that can result in a borderless society that sees transgression as an end in and of itself. And it’s a malaise that many of us seem to recognise, given the number of self-help books with titles like Boundaries and Relationships; Where to Draw the Line; Boundaries in Marriage; and How to Draw the Line in Your Head and Home. ‘People need borders’ Furedi insists. And – if you’ll forgive me for being ‘judgmental’, ‘moralising’, and ‘discriminatory’, just for a moment – I think he may be right.

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