On Boundaries

No living organism can survive without boundaries. Fundamental definitions of life, at the microscopic level, always involve a cell wall – a clearly delineated, visible, tangible boundary separating what’s inside the cell from what’s outside. A clear, observable definition of cell death is the moment at which this wall dissolves and what’s outside rushes in, what’s inside disperses out.

On a very obvious level that is non-microscopic, any living thing that you can see has a clear inside/outside demarcation – skin, bark. The clearest sign of life-threatening emergency is when this boundary is dramatically compromised. Blood rushing out, anything besides oxygen rushing in.

To be clear, this is not an impermeable and absolute boundary, either for cells or people. It’s just as dangerous to find oneself in a situation where nothing can cross the threshold – the clearest signs that the end is near is when someone or something stops eating, drinking, or breathing.

I believe that community, culture, and civilization also function as organisms – this is certainly not a new idea, not one that I can take credit for, but I think it can be very useful to apply it as directly as possible to this sort of cultural question. If a specific culture (experimental film culture, or Evangelical culture, or Somali culture) is an organism, in the sense that it functions, grows and evolves organically from a group of people, and if an organism can only survive if it can maintain a definite (though permeable) boundary, then any culture that is effectively losing its sense of boundaries is in the process of dying.

Note that this is not a moral stance – I’m not saying that dying is good or bad. Dying is a natural part of the cycle of organic existence on this planet. Nothing lives forever.

But so, for the sake of this speculation, the dissolution of boundaries = death. And, an organism that is invested in continuing to exist will usually fight to protect its boundaries. This is true in the case of white blood cells attacking bacterial invaders, deer fleeing from wolves, and certainly in any feudal kingdom, soldiers fighting to repel Viking or Mongol invaders.

Of course, this grows more abstract when we enter the realm of ideas, of culture. Social media and the internet are, at least according to their own PR, all about eliminating boundaries between people – technological boundaries, geographical boundaries, and indeed, cultural boundaries. You can follow Jennifer Lawrence on Twitter, you can be Facebook friends with President Obama or Donald Trump or Black Lives Matter, and/or, no doubt, thousands of deeply racist, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, jihadist groups large and small, around the world. Everyone you choose to friend has a certain degree of “access” to you, your ideas and your attention.

In the realm of nation-states, there are currently hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming across the state-defined borders around the world, whether you’re talking about those dividing Europe from the Middle East, or Central America and North America – lots and lots of people from different cultural backgrounds are moving around, from one region to another. Again – I’m not saying this is a good thing or a bad thing.

At what point, if the governments of those respective countries are powerless to control the flows across those borders, do the borders themselves cease to mean anything? Why have a border, why draw a line on the map if people from wherever can cross it at will? A case certainly could be made that none of these borders mean anything – but without borders, without a line that can be drawn around an idea (like “Germany”), what is that thing? At what point does that word cease to have any meaning whatsoever?

Likewise, every individual has some sense of personal identity – it’s a prerequisite of being a socialized, fully-functioning adult in the western world. Some aspects of that identity will be carefully considered, and others will be instinctive or reflexive. One of the reasons we group together socially is that we engage in the reciprocal task of affirming one another’s identity. I see you, I respect you, I like you – these strengthen identity and actually serve to define the boundaries around it – what it means to be me, what it means to be us.

The concept of emotional boundaries is pretty widely understood and accepted, in the fields of psychology and sociology, as necessary for emotional and psychological health. If your boundaries are being violated, physically, sexually, emotionally, taking action to protect yourself is a healthy response. Getting angry, fighting back, putting distance between yourself and whoever is not respecting your boundaries is a healthy and safe reaction.

The internet, by definition as it’s currently structured, is a place where all boundaries are in flux – they’re redefined by each new social media platform – and moreover, the platforms themselves have been known to shift their own boundaries whenever it suits them, without warning.

When a person has a certain understanding of their identity, built up over the course of years or decades interacting in family and community, they are invested in that identity, that definition of self. When something comes through their media stream challenging that identity, anger and defensiveness, though they can seem irrational and extreme, actually make perfect sense as an effort to protect identity from being compromised.

The intention of the new idea doesn’t really matter. It is traveling from who-knows-where, potentially a dramatically different perspective and worldview (even though geographically the source could be mere blocks away). You’ve gotten used to thinking you’re cool because you’ve mastered a certain video game, then somebody posts an article about how misogynistic the game is. You thought a certain phrasing was an appropriate way to address someone with a different cultural background, turns out that’s racist. You really like Thanksgiving, turns out pilgrims were perpetrating a horrific genocide on Native Americans.

Is all of this new information from varied perspectives potentially accurate and valuable? Perhaps. Can these new ideas be useful feedback about your beliefs and assumptions? Absolutely. It can all be true and right and well-intended, communicated to foster a more enlightened grasp of social justice and equality and empathy towards all people.

But in that moment, when the new perspective breaches one’s social/emotional/ideological boundaries and appears in the midst of one’s facebook feed or twitter or wherever, the natural human reaction as an organism is to want to push it back out. The degree to which it is unfamiliar, difficult to hear or contemplate, challenging to assimilate, is the exact degree to which it potentially provokes anger, rage, aggression.

We are all in a process of continual evolution as human beings, taking in new experiences, thoughts, ideas, and being changed by them. Some of this is totally involuntary, instinctual, some of it is a matter of choice and will: I want to change, I want to grow, I want to re-evaluate. But it makes sense to me, as an adult human, to have limits and boundaries around this willingness and even the ability to change.

As babies we are deeply malleable, but we can still express a fierce will about what we want and what we don’t. These desires have gotten us this far, have served our survival: when we are hungry we INSIST upon being fed, when we are cold we make noise until someone figures out what we need.

As adults too, our sense of personal identity has allowed us to persevere up to this point: we have all faced some kind of hardship, whether emotional, physical or psychological. Some of these choices of belief and opinion have been consciously chosen, and others have been instinctual reactions to our surroundings.

Some people are racist and/or sexist and/or homophobic, and this has served a purpose for them, played a role in their cultural identity up to this point. Some institutions are racist and/or sexist and/or homophobic, and institutionally, historically, these policies have served the perceived needs, expressed or unexpressed, of the institution and its members.

Are these views unenlightened, false, wrong, often hypocritical, in the context of a progressive world where the goal is equality and equity, peace and harmony, truth and justice? Yes, absolutely. Will the people who hold these beliefs get angry when challenged? Yes, absolutely. They are reacting to a breach of their ideological and emotional boundaries, a transgression of their identity, an invasion of their cultural space.

As individuals and groups, as members of various cultures and subcultures and nations and communities, we share the responsibility for defining the boundaries of ourselves, our communities, our identities. We are all, regardless of our beliefs, trying to figure out how permeable and malleable those boundaries should be, at any given moment, on any subject.

The answer is not utterly inflexible, impermeable – this will cause us to suffocate, asphyxiate and die, as cultural and biological organisms.

But neither is the answer boundary-lessness, total flexibility and permeability, utter openness to the new and unfamiliar and uncomfortable, solicitousness to all manner of challenge and question and affront. Because if we don’t maintain and defend some kind of boundary, as communities or cultures or nations or individuals, we’re finished. We know that and the fear it causes is both existential and abstract and painfully, viscerally immediate.

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