Global Discourse
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Moving the boundaries is not the same as erasing them: A review of Frank Furedi’s Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries

Author: David Bartram1
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  • 1 University of Leicester, , UK
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Routledge2020202pp • £21.99 (paperback) • £19.79 (ebook) • ISBN: 9780367416829

I am going to criticise this book quite heavily. That should be okay with Frank Furedi: he is very much in favour of criticism. One of his main arguments is that people are too reluctant to evaluate, to pass judgement. I promise to avoid that error here.

In the first instance, the book is a critique of ‘open borders’ in connection with immigrants. But ultimately the target is much broader. A rejection of borders goes with Western society’s loss of self-confidence, of its willingness to assert itself on the basis of long-established values. Having enabled a mass influx of immigrants, we then offer them citizenship willy-nilly, with no attempt to condition it on deservingness or assimilation – thereby delegitimising our national identity, undermining our sovereignty and hollowing out our democracy. We reject borders in part because we reject symbolic boundaries in general, and the consequence is that we lose the ability to experience community and meaning in our lives.

The abandonment of borders and boundaries manifests at the personal level as well: people no longer keep private things private, with unfettered discussion of masturbation, menstruation, genitals, sex, and so on – or, if they do keep them private, they are exhorted to be more ‘open’. Openness also means refraining from making judgements, especially about categories of people who have long been stigmatised – gays/lesbians/bisexual/transgender people, in particular. Where necessary, the state is recruited to enforce this open, non-judgemental stance, and to insulate its willing adherents from criticism. The paradox of ‘no borders’ is that it involves a loss of freedom, on top of the loss of meaning.

In short, it has almost become illegal (and certainly disreputable) to uphold traditional values – and not just the value of keeping immigration under control.

What a bizarre time we live in. Trump is building a wall in the American desert and putting children in cages after separation from their parents. Italy and Greece are trying to prevent rescue boats overloaded with desperate refugees from landing on their shores. Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ was not hostile enough – we had to have Brexit and Priti Patel. All of this and more – and yet a UK sociologist is worried that our borders are too open? We are meant to be persuaded that there is not enough xenophobia in our public discourse?

Again, though, Furedi’s real target is deeper: he wants us to recover our willingness to exercise moral judgement. Not only that: we need to ensure that people feel confident in making, out loud, the right moral judgements.

Here as well I struggle to recognise the description that leads to Furedi’s diagnosis and prescription. It does not help that he often builds arguments from anecdotes. A ‘Christian doctor’ employed by the Department for Work and Pensions lost his job because he insisted on referring to trans clients with gendered pronouns the clients rejected. There’s a source for that – it is true. But anecdote morphs into generalisation: ‘Millions of individuals who intuitively feel that there is something not right about the institutionalisation of trans culture nevertheless feel insecure about voicing their views’ (p 147). Really? No data are offered to support that one. Maybe it is true. But it seems no less true that there are large numbers of people who feel no insecurity at all in giving full voice to anti-trans views. (Where are my own data? I am drawing on newspaper articles and Twitter, mainly. I sincerely promise not to write a book containing this assertion without support from proper data.)

There’s a further problem. Already in Chapter 3 (‘Unmasking openness’), Furedi tells us that people have not actually abandoned moral judgement. They make all kinds of judgements – including negative ones, especially about people who persist in holding ‘traditional’ moral views. If you condemn others who are ‘different’, you get judged for being ‘judgemental’. One might say these judgements are being weaponised in public discourse by masquerading as openness, as non-judgementalism.

Though Furedi does not use the words, I discern here an implication of confusion, perhaps even of incoherence and hypocrisy.

Along with other core elements of this book, this angle seems puzzling. Furedi’s core concern is about ‘society’s alienation from the making of moral judgement and the drawing of lines’ (p vi), the ‘devaluation of moral judgement’ (p 172). If only we could once again confidently make moral judgements, we would restore a sense of meaning, keep the state at arm’s length, reinvigorate our national identity, revitalise our democracy, and so on.

But it turns out that we do make moral judgements. I think it is a mistake to see confusion (and perhaps incoherence/hypocrisy) here. If moral judgements are being made (even under the guise of openness and non-judgementalism), why conclude that there is somehow a ‘diminished cultural status accorded to the act of moral judgement’ (p 13)? Both elements of this argument – the perception that there is a dearth of judgement, and the implication of confusion/hypocrisy – strike me as misreadings of the social reality Furedi investigates. Any confusion is not located in the social spheres Furedi is critiquing.

Surely what is going on here is simply that Furedi does not agree with the moral judgements many people are in fact making.

Well, okay. Of course, mere criticism of other people’s moral views would not pass muster as an academic book. The criticism, then, is embedded in a critique of other social theorists, who are no doubt responsible for leading the general public astray with their cosmopolitanism and their deconstructionism and all that. Their views contain contradictions and they do not even see it! A more moderate language for critique along these lines could have involved identification of trade-offs associated with social trends involving cosmopolitanism, openness, and so on. Few if any social trends have unambiguously positive consequences. I suspect, though, that a critique framed with reference to trade-offs would not fit Furedi’s broad theme of social degradation.

As I read successive chapters, I formed a distinct impression that Furedi is genuinely mystified by some of the developments he describes. People are rejecting the ‘real’ and symbolic boundaries that make their lives meaningful – why on earth would they do that? Are they simply vandals intent on destruction for its own sake? What do they gain?

Only in the final chapter do we see an engagement with ‘why’. The answer is not quite vandalism, but it is roughly in the same ballpark. Furedi discerns an impulse towards transgression, especially among academics: ‘a section of academia is drawn towards the performance of transgression and gets a buzz out of [it]’ (p 168). There is even a brief passage on the Marquis de Sade; evidently the transgressive impulse springs from (or gives rise to?) academic sadism. For the rest of the population, a rejection of borders and evaluations is a way of ‘distancing themselves from their moral inferiors’ (p 167). It is surprising not to see a mention of Hillary Clinton’s ‘deplorables’ here. Too easy?

I imagine some readers will find a competing idea more compelling. Furedi is right: many people do reject older ways of seeing things. But again they do not reject evaluation itself. Instead, they make different evaluations; they value a different set of symbolic boundaries. Plausibly, the underlying impulse is not vandalism or transgression but rather empathy. In the past, certain characteristics (especially non-normative sexualities and genders) and choices attracted shame, stigma and exclusion. That tendency has subsided to a certain extent. (Subsided completely? Let’s not be absurd.) More people are inclined to embrace difference, to reject shaming, to expand the boundaries of belonging. When they see shaming and exclusion enacted by others, they condemn it; they make judgements. They take the side of the person being shamed, rather than going along with the shaming. This is not abandonment of evaluation motivated by a transgressive impulse or a sense of superiority; it is a different set of evaluations, motivated by empathy. (Data? For this idea as well I will use actual data if I write my own book.)

Furedi heads in a different direction. He laments ‘the absurd attempts made to normalise transgender culture’ (p 143). He refers, with apparent sarcasm, to the ‘life-threatening harm’ that some people perceive when others question aspects of their identity, such as by ‘deadnaming’ (p 99).1 He clearly sides with the former Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) employee who lost his job for misgendering trans clients, rather than with the trans clients.

Furedi might well ask: what about empathy for the people who are finding it hard to embrace more ‘open’ attitudes? (Perhaps even: what about empathy for Frank Furedi?) This question is usually posed in slightly sharper terms: to what extent should we tolerate the intolerant? The ‘paradox of tolerance’ is a complex idea; ‘obvious’ answers will not help us. (Certainly not for strategic purposes; Clinton’s ‘deplorables’ was a major error.) To see beyond the obvious answers, it is necessary first to understand that there is indeed a paradox. Making the world safer for those who insist on deadnaming does not seem like a goal that contributes to clarity on this important topic.

Still, I am glad I read this book. I learned quite a lot from it. It has usefully reinforced for me how important it is to carry on with the aim of helping students develop and exercise their own capacity for judgement and evaluation – so that they are not inclined to absorb without question the judgements they might have inherited from their elders.

Note

1

‘Deadnaming’ refers to an insistence on using a name someone else has rejected in association with transitioning to a different gender. It is a form of misgendering – for example, referring to someone as Robert (their former name) instead of Barbara (current name).

  • 1 University of Leicester, , UK

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