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The High Cost of Shattering Sensible Boundaries 


“It is important to establish and maintain clear boundaries.” Is there anyone of a certain age who has not received this directive at one point or another in their lives? 

On the most obvious level it is a warning to safeguard the sanctity of the self from damaging intrusions from careless or aggressive others. However, when we take the time to contemplate this advice in light of key cultural traditions—the most enduring of which always draw our eyes to the key role that paradox plays in the pursuit of human wisdom—we can see that it is much more than this. 

To establish a boundary, as Robert Frost famously reminded us, is both an act of separation and an act of coming together, for it is only from a place of clearly drawn differentiation that we can recognize the beauty and miraculousness of another human being, and begin imagining how—if we are so inclined—we might begin the grand and mysterious process of trying to truly understand his or her unique feelings and thoughts. 

It is, I think, important to underscore two elements of the foregoing sentence: “If we are so inclined” and the use of the conditional “might” in its final clause. 

They are there to underscore the essentially voluntary nature of the act of reaching across the boundaries that naturally separate us (or that we have set up and reinforced) to explore the unique reality of that other being or set of beings. No one can force us to engage with another person. 

This is true in general, but it is especially true when it comes to our interactions in the public square. 

While most of us generally seek to be friendly and kind in public spaces, we are under no obligation at all to act in this way. As harsh as it may sound, none of us is even obliged to acknowledge the physical presence of others occupying the same general space, never mind the particular and necessarily privately construed way they’d like to be treated or addressed. 

The only things we are obligated to do is to accept their right to be there, and presuming they are as courteous to you as you will have been to them when your paths cross, and to tolerate their right to freely express their thoughts and ideas. 

Though it can often be nice, and uplifting for all involved, to let them know how much you like what they have said, you are under absolutely no obligation to do so. Indeed, you not only have no obligation to do so, but have the right to tell them—again within the bounds of basic courtesy—how you might strongly disagree with all or part of what they say. 

In other words, in a polity that strives to be democratic, our publicly-maintained relations with others are necessarily defined by a rather minimalist ethos within which the right to separateness is seen, paradoxically, as the best way of ensuring some degree of functional unity between us all. 

The framers of our Constitution, as well as those who sought to establish similar liberal democratic experiments after them in the 19th century, understood what it meant to live in a society where the lines between the public and private realms of life were blurred or flat out non-existent. 

Though many today seem to have forgotten it, these first attempts to establish liberal democracies were carried out against the backdrop of long-standing, if by then also somewhat weakened, feudal social structures. 

The politicians and political theorists who promoted them were thus very aware of what it meant (or had recently meant) to be a subject of a lord who effectively possessed the right to pleasure himself with your daughter or wife on a whim (le droit du seigneu) or to send the fathers and/or sons of the same family off to wars undertaken to preserve or enhance his personal wealth for years at a time. They also knew what it meant to be forced to profess loyalty in public to a given religious tradition that you did not believe in under the threat of severe social sanctions. 

Under the French model of republicanism, with its drive to engender complete laïcité , this drive to insure separation between the public and private realms of life took the approach of banning all symbols or frank invocations of religious faith from public institutions and deliberations. 

The shapers of the American model of republicanism believed, however, that to try and ban all expressions of private belief systems from the public realm was unrealistic, and would only lead to more tensions and complications. 

The key, they thought, lay in ensuring that none of these multiple private belief systems ever rose to a condition where it alone, or bundled together with friendly competitors, could ever exercise a coercive power over those individuals that did not share their beliefs and aims. 

Until a few years ago, this ethos was widely, and at least in the world I grew up in, unremarkably, understood. My deeply Catholic grandfather would have never dreamt of putting anyone in the small city on whose school board he served for a quarter of a century in the position of having to actively or passively assent to any element of his faith, or for that matter, his political party, in order to access this or that social good. Period. Those things simply weren’t done in America as had been the case in British-controlled Ireland where members of his immediate family had been born. 

Subscribing to this general ethos also included the following imperative. As long as another person was not exercising coercion—traditionally understood as the ability to physically or economically harm another person in the hopes of achieving compliance to your particular aims—you, and in fact all of us, were obligated to let him or her express themselves without interruption or threat in public. 

You didn’t have to like what they were saying and you certainly didn’t have to embrace it. But you had absolutely no right, except in an extremely limited number of very, very special circumstances—which I should underscore never included avoiding someone’s necessarily private sense of moral offense—to impede it, a posture made clear in the Supreme Court’s decision to not intervene in the case of Nazi sympathizers who had obtained the right in state courts to march in favor of their ideas in the heavily Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie in 1977. 

I think most would agree things have changed since then, and not in a way that favors most citizens’ right to speak freely in the public realm. 

And what is more striking is that this drastic curtailment of the most basic of our constitutional rights has occurred in the absence of any major derogation of existing statutes. In recent years thousands of people have lost their jobs or promotions for simply speaking their minds freely! And this has caused millions more to add self-censorship of heartfelt ideas to their repertoire of essential social skills. 

In a society not based—explicitly at least—on any ethnic or linguistic schema of group solidarity, and where power of laws are, by design, the primary glue of our social cohesion, this extralegal abrogation of core liberties should frighten everyone. 

A republic in which both the spirit and letter of the law, and with them our most basic freedoms, can be overridden by the coercive power of interest groups pursuing their private ideological programs is not a republic at all. Or if it is a republic it is one in the way that so many Latin American societies have been “republics” during the past two centuries; that is, a place where the written canon of laws has little or nothing to do with the actual exercise of rights and privileges in the culture. 

How has this happened? 

We could adduce many, many reasons for the precipitous inversion in recent years of our long-standing approach to managing the public-private divide in our culture. 

I will simply speak to what I see as three dynamics that have contributed heavily to this, in many ways, revolutionary change. 

The first is the widespread failure in recent years of parents and educational institutions to imbue our young with a sense of cultural verticality, and from there, the ability to calculate the true nature of their affective proximity to various others. 

When I go out in public in the provincial city of Italy where I am currently living, I will invariably be addressed in the formal “lei” form of “you” by almost everyone I meet, including, if not especially, by young store clerks. On the most basic level this is a long-used way of paying tribute to the supposed wisdom I have acquired during my six decades on earth.

But it is also a way for that waiter or store clerk to adopt a mask of sorts, one that allows him or her to distance and protect their self socio-emotionally from me, and that underscores that I do not form part their circle of intimate concern, and that our relationship, while hopefully courteous, should not in any way be confused in terms of its emotional importance with those they maintain with their family and intimate friends. 

Children observing this over time learn important things. One is that mastering different tones and registers of speech to deal with people from different social provenances is an important life skill. And with that comes the knowledge that not every feeling or idea in their minds can or should be shared with everyone, and that, as a general rule, expressions of personal anguish or deep emotional import are best left to conversations with those whom we have a very solid, deep and time-ratified bond of trust. 

Despite modern English not having the built-in tool of the formal “you,” we used to have similar ways of (Ma’am, Sir, Doctor, Professor, Mr., Mrs.) of inculcating such principles of proper social demarcation and affective measurement in the young. 

But somewhere along the line the Baby-Boomers, with their irrepressible desire to feel forever young, and as part of that, puerilely reject anything their parents had insisted upon, decided to dispense with all that, and began inviting their six-year-old child’s six-year-old friends to address them by their first names. 

The result, as I lived it not too many years back when I would take my 80-year-old mom and her 80-year-old friend out to lunch was having some sloppily dressed 18-year-old kid come to the table and say “Hi there, how ya doin’? What can I get for you guys?” 

The real tragedy here is not the fleeting sense of annoyance we felt, but that the poor kids involved had absolutely no idea that there are other, long-followed, ways of addressing people in such situations, ways that speak to the formal and necessarily non-intimate nature of the relationship between us at that moment, forms of speech that, paradoxically, underscore and protect the extremely precious nature of those intimate relationships where, linguistically and emotionally speaking, things are much more free and easy. 

For an important part of the age cohort raised in this borderless ethos, and the largely protocol-free confines of the online world, the tragedy is that most “other” people come to be viewed as intimate and strange in pretty much the same measure. 

This being the case, it probably shouldn’t surprise us that they feel perfectly entitled to clog up our public space, which as I have suggested, was designed as a place for identifying and resolving broad common concerns, with narrowly defined personal fears and neuroses, like demanding under the pain of a flash-mob cancellation that their particular and often half-baked political ideas and jargon preferences be adhered to strictly, and without exception. 

The terrible irony here is that coercing people in this way is one of the last things one would ever do in the context of a real and trusting intimate bond. But since they do not know true formality, it’s very hard, if not impossible, for them to understand true intimacy. And as a result of this fundamental inability to distinguish between the two things, we are forced to deal with their vomit of emotions and tantrum-laden demands in our public spaces.

It must be said, however, that the power and impact of this serial brattiness has been greatly enhanced by its protagonists’ use of tactics pioneered by an important number of those who now most vigorously decry their behavior: threat inflation. 

In the late 70s and early 80s Western elites in general, and US elites in particular–frightened by a future defined by diminishing returns on their investments of financial and social capital—mostly gave up on using the power at their disposal to improve the social and material conditions of the populations under their tutelage. 

Not wanting, however, to lose complete control of the increasingly restive masses, they turned ever more assiduously to the game exaggerating the dimensions of internal and external threats to the culture in the belief that this specter of fear would induce a level of social discipline that they would not be able to impose by conventional political means. 

As I have mentioned time and again, Italy, with its US-backed “Strategy of Tension” in the 70s and 80s served as a key testing ground in this regard, as did Israel and its powerful lobby in the US with their endless, if empirically farcical, talk about the country being “driven into the sea” by Palestinians backed by a coalition of Arab powers whose combined might has long paled in comparison to that possessed by a nuclear-armed and US-backed Jewish State. 

After September 11th the threat exaggeration machine was brought home and directed mercilessly at the home-borne population of our country. And it quickly achieved its desired ends. 

In the face of supposedly constant threats to our way of life from supposedly implacable and mindlessly hateful foreign entities, US citizens voluntarily ceded many of their core constitutional liberties. Key among them was the Fourth Amendment protections against intrusions into the private realm of our lives. 

As Brownstone Fellow Jim Bovard reminds us here, we have known since at least late 2005, when the New York Times published James Risen’s articles on the matter, that the NSA was massively violating the privacy of American citizens through indiscriminate warrantless spying. We would have known nearly more than a year earlier had the people over in the land of “All the news that’s fit to print” not spiked the story for fear of angering the Bush administration and the Deep State. 

And when it was finally revealed well after the 2004 elections, what happened? 

Almost nothing. 

Most Americans decided they really did not care that the government had arrogated to itself to poke around in their private lives in the search for “suspicious” clues. 

And with this non-reaction, there was established another landmark in the history of Boomer insouciance (yes, boys and girls we’ve been in the institutional chair since the mid-1990s) before their responsibility to safeguard fundamental cultural and political values. 

The example of the government-corporate coalition’s ability to put people on the defensive through threat inflation, and in this way, extract sizable quotas of their constitutionally guaranteed civic power from them, was not lost on many of our now increasingly disoriented and depressed—wouldn’t you be if the adults in your life had failed to teach you the difference between an intimate friend and a passing acquaintance, or to provide the tools for locating the self in the march of cultural history—young people. 

But how does a young and relatively powerless person generate and exaggerate threats with which to blackmail their societal elders? 

The answer to their tactical dreams came in the form of what is often called the “linguistic turn” in the US humanities faculties beginning in the late 70s and 80s; that is, an emphasis on how language not only communicates reality, but also shapes it. 

Now, I would be among the first people to try and convince you of the enormous power that language has in shaping our perceptions of the world. And in that sense I can say my understanding of culture is in many ways indebted to this scholarly emphasis on the generative power of language. 

The problem comes when it is implied or assumed that my speech acts, or those of another person, have the power to determine my interlocutor’s understanding of the world; that is, that those on the other end of my utterances have neither the volitional power nor the filtration capacities (another basic affective barrier gone missing or never taught) needed to become anything but a conquered acolyte in the face of my descriptive and explicatory magic. 

Sounds mad? Well it is. 

But this formulation, which presumes near total human defenselessness, and which essentially imbues words with a level of coercive power equal to, if not exceeding, a punch in the face or a cocked pistol at the side of the head, is the precept that—try as they might to deny it—underlies most, if not all of the current efforts by our mostly young digital brownshirts to cancel and/or censor others. 

And rather than stand up to this absurd threat-inflation gambit, most people in public authority, staying true to our current zeitgeist’s generalized disdain for the ever-necessary job of establishing and enforcing interpersonal boundaries, have sought to placate rather than deride and ignore these absurd attempts at emotional and political blackmail. 

And given what we now know about the combined corporate-state control of cyberspace, with its prime leaders’ well-known fascination with the science of “nudging” and so-called “whole of society” solutions, we’d have to be naïve to think that these institutions are not using their culture-planning power to strengthen and catalyze the boundary-shredding cultural trends outlined above. That is, if they were part of an as yet uncovered effort to consciously set the social tendency toward the breaking of healthy boundaries in motion. 

Consumer culture, with its sugary cereals placed strategically at the child’s eye level in supermarket aisles, has long sought to upset traditional lines of parental authority in the name of selling more product. 

Is it so far-fetched to think that a government that has effectively given up on the idea of serving its citizenry and thus seeks to merely perpetuate itself in power, would not recur to many of the same tactics? 

Having engaged in successful culture-planning efforts aimed at social destabilization all around the world in the service of our empire, they understand the hegemonic “value” of a fractured and fractious culture where children are given, or allowed to take, powers that essentially shatter parental prerogative, thus “liberating” them to serve, in their inherently defenseless state, as wards of a combination of state and corporate power. 

Do you really believe that the current mania surrounding the rights of so-called trans children (a historically miniscule segment of any given population), like the drive to give children the right to decide on getting vaccinated, actually derives more from a profound concern for the “health” of the children than it does to eliminate and or weaken parental prerogative? Do you have any doubt that there are very powerful and coordinated efforts behind these campaigns? 

 I don’t. 

Boundary-setting, and with it the transmission of trans-generational knowledge and the ability to calculate one’s true emotional proximity to others, are essential elements of a healthy culture. 

For reasons having a lot to do with the Baby Boomer generation’s tendency to often flippantly dispense with time-tested cultural knowledge in the name of “progress” and or “liberation,” many children have been deprived of an opportunity to gain these valuable skills. 

Not surprisingly, important numbers of them are feeling quite culturally and emotionally adrift. And while some have earnestly and productively addressed this sense of spiritual void, others have sought false solace in the nihilistic game of emotional blackmail, relying in these efforts in the tactic of threat inflation—especially in the linguistic realm—employed assiduously by their government and many of the other figures of “authority” in their lives. 

And there is good reason that important elements of our government regime look upon the process of atomization provoked and accelerated by these particular dynamics with no small amount of glee. 

The answer? 

As in so many cases it involves going back to the basics. And if you are of a certain age, this means no longer trying to fit into the often tyrannical demands of our youth-obsessed consumer culture, and to instead say the things you need to say and do as someone charged, dare I say it, by the laws of nature with the responsibility of passing on to those rising up behind you at least as much cultural capital as you received from your elders. 

If you do this today, they might very well call you or portray you as a cranky old bore. But tomorrow they just might in a moment of call, worry or introspection reflect on what you said. 

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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  • Thomas Harrington

    Thomas Harrington, Senior Brownstone Scholar and Brownstone Fellow, is Professor Emeritus of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, where he taught for 24 years. His research is on Iberian movements of national identity and contemporary Catalan culture. His essays are published at Words in The Pursuit of Light.

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