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Book Review Symposium: Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries

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  • 1 University of Kent, , UK
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A reply to reviews of Furedi’s Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries by John Hall, David Bartram and Férdia Stone Davis.


A reply to reviews of Furedi’s Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries by John Hall, David Bartram and Férdia Stone Davis.

Routledge • ISBN 97803674168292020£18.99 (paperback)

I am grateful to John Hall, David Bartram and Férdia Stone Davis for their comments. This has been a very useful exchange of views that has helped me to better understand the issues raised in Why Borders Matter. They have also given me ideas about how to elaborate and focus some of the views discussed in my book.

Response to John Hall

I have found John Hall’s comments and criticisms very useful for forcing me to reflect on and rethink some the arguments put forward in Why Borders Matter. In the course of thinking about a social problem and devoting time and energy to developing arguments around it there is always a danger of becoming one-sided and failing to be sensitive towards trends that may contradict them. Some of Hall’s comments serve as a warning against the intellectual sin of overlooking the complexity of social life.

To some extent I tried to mediate the thesis of the book by examining some of the trends that appear to contradict my arguments about contemporary society’s obsession with borderlessness and its reluctance to make symbolic and moral distinctions in a variety of settings. For example, Chapter 9, ‘Inventing Borders For a Boundless World’, draws attention to what I call the ‘paradox of borders’, which is the co-existence of a zeitgeist of boundlessness with the impulse to construct new borders and symbolic boundaries. In several places I draw attention to the fact that hostility to walls and borders coexists with the impulse to reinforce and create new boundaries.

So, I am sympathetic to Hall’s query as to ‘whether some of the cultural excrescences’, that are discussed in the book ‘really amount to an unremitting trend, rather than distasteful cultural entertainment’. Furthermore, Hall is right to raise the question of:

Do we really know that large numbers of people follow the latest cultural trends, and have their lives diminished as a result? A distinction surely needs to be drawn between a cultural elite and more mundane realities – or, at least one should and can draw this distinction in the absence of empirical research showing its falsity.

It is of course difficult to be certain about the degree to which cultural trends have caught the imagination of the public and have had a significant impact on everyday life and I make no claims about the extent of their power to influence people’s behaviour.

Why Borders Matter relies on evidence – historical and contemporary – drawn from the kinds of narrative that go into the construction of a cultural script. I have no doubt that the borderless imperative, the celebration of openness and of non-judgmentalism are widely and systematically inscribed in school texts, the value statements of public and private sector institutions and widely promoted through the media. As to their impact on everyday life I am not so sure. From my previous work on the changing narrative of parenting and of fear I have drawn the conclusion that it takes two to four generations before newly constructed cultural ideals favoured by the elites become internalised by the mainstream of society. Nevertheless, although Hall is right to draw a distinction between the attitudes of the cultural elites and ‘mundane reality’, the influential status of the cultural script of non-judgmentalism is not a mere transient phenomenon.

Hall observes rightly that we live in a complex and divided society, where ‘the cultural elite may reflect its own concerns, not those of society as a whole’. The implication of this point is that there is a risk of overstating an argument about a cultural influence and overlooking the possibility of differential responses to them. No doubt it is important to be sensitive to social and cultural differences. However, there are trends discussed in the book whose dominant – even hegemonic – influence is difficult to ignore. My discussion of the erosion of the boundary between adults and children shows that it is not some epiphenomenon that pertains to a small minority of elite families. The infantilisation of adults and the adultification of children is widely recognised and already has a significant influence on the conduct of public life. Similarly, the institutionalisation of the erosion of the distinction between public and private life that I discuss in the book is widely recognised and welcomed.

Hall raises the important question of what can we do to counteract the power of the cultural influences discussed in the book. He notes that ‘We can scarcely go back, to tighter and more disciplined worlds, as Furedi worryingly seems to want’. As it happens, I do not possess any aspiration to ‘go back’ to a ‘tighter more disciplined world’. Why? Because first of all it is not possible to go back to the past and reclaim its traditions without becoming a caricature of oneself. Secondly, it is important to look to the future rather than to the past and develop a moral language and attitude towards public life that is appropriate to our circumstance. The sub-title of the book is ‘Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries’. What it refers to is not the rehabilitation of old boundaries but of the need to learn to draw new ones, that is the art of making distinctions and judgements appropriate for the 21st century. The book does not call for the revival of traditions but for a willingness to adopt a normative foundation for public discussion and for the achievement of moral clarity.

I agree with Hall that binary thinking does not always need to be defended. I never imagined in the past that one day I would have to discuss this subject. My aim was not so much to defend binary thinking, as to critique the anti-binary trend that has emerged in recent times. The hostility to binary categories has little to do with the project of conceptual clarification. It is motivated by a hostile orientation towards the making of distinction. The current critique of binary thinking is not the outcome of a desire to uphold dialectical or more fluid ways of approaching problems as by a reaction against the making of conceptual distinctions.

Response to David Bartram

There are some important points of difference between Bartram and myself, which are worthy of further clarification. Most of these points touch on issues to do with how we understand the concept of judgement and the related problem of tolerance.

Unfortunately, in his enthusiasm to criticise my arguments Bartram also has tendency to caricature them, and in some instance to imaginatively attribute views to me, which he no doubt sincerely believes that I hold but which are absent from my work. According to his reading of the book it says, ‘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.’ For the record, the book does not support these sentiments and I can only assume that Bartram adopts a very promiscuous use of the power of interpretative reading.

Bartram adopts an accusatory style of critique – accusations based on inference and on what I supposedly mean rather than what is written in the book. For example, he states that ‘Though Furedi does not use the words, I discern here an implication of confusion, perhaps even of incoherence and hypocrisy.’ Since these kinds of statements are unanswerable, I will avoid responding to them.

Bartram conveys the impression that in upholding the authority of borders, I put forward a polemic against migration and immigrants. Having decided that Why Borders Matter is a vile and racist tract, he asks: ‘We are meant to be persuaded that there’s not enough xenophobia in our public discourse?’ (emphasis in original) The attribution of an aspiration for more xenophobia on my part is mischievous and illustrative of a refusal to take seriously arguments advanced by an intellectual opponent.

If Bartram has detected strains of xenophobia in my book it is because he has decided in advance that an argument for upholding the status of borders – physical and symbolic – must be inspired by such dark impulses. The book is not a critique of mass migration nor does it criticise immigrants. It calls into question the premise on which contemporary debates on immigration are based. The key argument of the book in relation to mass migration is that the issue at stake is not the movement of people but the tendency to call into question the unique and important status of citizenship. It argues that:

It is undoubtedly the case that mass migration calls into question the authority of borders. But whether or not there is a ‘precarious’ boundary between citizen and migrant is not the outcome of the global movement of people but of a political project that calls into question the concept of citizenship. (p 60)

In other words, Why Borders Matter aims to uphold the moral authority of citizenship and sovereignty against a significant body of opinion that seeks to devalue them. The argument is not against mass migration but the tendency to diminish the distinction between migrants and citizens and to dismiss sovereignty as either a myth or an obstacle to the realisation of cosmopolitan objectives.

Bartram could have engaged with the substantive content of my claim that the upholding of the moral authority of borders and of national sovereignty is inextricably linked to the flourishing of the ideals of democratic citizenship and of human solidarity. Instead he has adopted an accusatory style of polemics that makes it difficult to achieve clarification on a difference of views. My advocacy for the nation state is motivated by an outlook that regards the achievement of solidarity as a spatially bounded accomplishment. As the book states: ‘Paradoxically, the best protection for refugees is provided by nation states, where citizens feel confident about their role and where, as a result they are able to extend the solidarity they achieved to people beyond their borders.’ (p 46)

There are, as I argue, ‘two contradictory, but very human, passions’, which is the ‘human aspiration for freedom of mobility and people’s existential need for a sense of security’ (p 6). The border, like a door or a fence symbolises security and as Simmel argued, establishes the terms on which people relate to others (p 10). The aspiration for security of some may clash with the desire of others to move about freely without restraints. I believe that ‘neither of these sentiments can be ignored, which means that society has some very difficult choices to make’. I suggest that ‘the answer’ lies in the ‘reconciliation of the aspiration for the freedom of movement with the existential need for spatial and symbolic security’ (p 12). My thesis is that, though foundational, borders are also a focus of constant negotiation in an enlightened world.

Bartram raises some important criticisms of the central argument of the book, which posits that the trend towards the devaluation of moral judgement is the key cultural problem of our time. On one point, however, he resorts to caricaturing instead of engaging with my argument. He writes that my concern about the importance of making moral judgements is linked to, or conditional to the making of ‘the right moral judgement’ (emphasis in original). That is not what the books says. On the contrary it endorses judgement and its exercise as a value in in its own right regardless of whether the decisions arrived at are right or wrong. The book argues that it is through the judging of one another that we demonstrate that we take each other seriously and assist the flourishing of the public sphere and public life. ‘Without the social connection realised through judgment,’ I argue, ‘human estrangement acquires a powerful influence over the conduct of human affairs’ (p 171).

At no point does Bartram engage with the central point about my argument about judgement, which is its cultural devaluation. The book argues at length that in contemporary society moral judgement has acquired negative connotations as illustrated by the term ‘judgy’. Moreover, rather than upholding the value of moral judgement, contemporary western society self-consciously celebrates that of non-judgmentalism. The book explores the historical emergence of the idealisation of non-judgmentalism and its eventual acquisition of a quasi-sacred status (pp 24–7).

Bartram argues that Why Borders Matters is wrong to imagine that the status of moral judgements has been devalued. He suggests that the argument that there is a ‘dearth of judgement’ is a misreading of reality. In addition, he claims that my argument on this point is contradictory and observes that ‘Furedi tells us that people have not actually abandoned moral judgement’ (emphasis in original).

It is true that that I draw attention to the fact that despite the sacralisation of non-judgmentalism there is a powerful accusatory cultural climate, where people’s attitudes and behaviour are routinely condemned. I draw attention to this paradox, when I note that despite ‘the non-judgmental cultural turn, there is still plenty of scope for judgment’ (p 166). Elsewhere the book notes that:

At present, acts of judgement are often made and communicated in a semi-clandestine and surreptitious form. The hesitant and defensive manner with which judgement is expressed deprives society of the moral clarity it needs to deal with uncertainty. (p 172)

So, does the recognition of the fact that ‘acts of judgement’ continue to be made call into question the central thesis of the book, which highlights the devaluation of the exercise of moral judgement?

In the first instance there is difference between the colloquial meaning of judgement and that of moral judgement. Moral judgement pertains to the domain on normativity and involves the making of choices about moral norms (on the question of normativity, see Korsgaard, 2009). In the contemporary era, acts of judgements tend to consciously distance themselves from the realm of morality and to eschew the drawing of moral distinctions.

Contemporary society has adopted a veritable vocabulary of ‘judgemental’ words that self-consciously seek to avoid coming across as judgemental. Terms like ‘inappropriate’, ‘uncomfortable’, ‘unwelcome’ or ‘problematic’ condemn without offering information about the nature of the transgression. When someone complains about the ‘inappropriate behaviour’ of an individual it leaves open the question of how it diverged from appropriate behaviour. Through their vagueness, these terms deliberately evade explicit responsibility for drawing moral boundaries and referring to a coherent system of right and wrong. But vagueness does not merely obscure free and spontaneous verbal communication – it also closes it down. It is difficult to counter the accusation that someone has behaved inappropriately without clarity about what was appropriate in those circumstances. The judgements implied by the use of these terms are infused with the sensibility of non-judgementalism.

Of course, there are also acts of moral judgement but my argument was not about their total disappearance but the decline of their cultural valuation.

It is not surprising that Bartram and I have a different evaluation of both the importance and the relevance of moral judgement since we seem to have a fundamentally different orientation towards the value of tolerance. Tolerance is intimately connected to the acceptance of the right of people to live according to beliefs and opinions that are different, sometimes antithetical to our own. As I argue elsewhere: ‘Tolerance does not invite us to accept or celebrate other people’s sentiments, but requires that we live with them and desists from interfering or forcing others to fall in line with our views’ (Furedi, 2011: 47). It is of course difficult to be tolerant of views that we abhor, which is why our capacity for tolerance is continually tested. Tolerating beliefs and views hostile to our own requires a degree of confidence in our own convictions, and a willingness to take risks.

Tolerance is intertwined with the significance we attached to judgement, which is why Bartram adopts a restricted version of the concept of toleration. Bartram notes

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?

As it happens, most of us find it difficult to embrace open attitudes – especially towards those whose views violate our own sensibility. The difficulty of true tolerance is not in doubt. But does that mean that the issue becomes one of considering placing restrictions on the exercise of tolerance – ‘to what extent should we tolerate the intolerant’?

It seems to me that the very posing of the question of ‘to what extent should we tolerate the intolerant’? leads to the answer ‘as little as possible’. Bartram takes the view that there is something inherently wrong with my objective of tolerating dissidents’ sentiments that many find offensive. ‘Making the world safer for those who insist on deadnaming does not seem like a goal that contributes to clarity’, he states. What he means is that tolerance of deadnaming is a step too far. Yet what he portrays as making the world safe for those ‘who insist on deadnaming’ is another way of saying making the world safe for the freedom of speech. Without tolerating views that we perceive as intolerable, tolerance loses its positive moral content.

Tolerance is indispensable because it creates the conditions for the free expression of our opinions, beliefs and behaviours associated with conscience. But tolerance is also a moral virtue because it allows society openly to engage with moral uncertainty. Instead of closing down discussion in a desperate search for certainty, tolerance openly embraces uncertainty, regarding it as an opportunity to develop our knowledge and gain greater moral and intellectual clarity.

Interference with individual beliefs and opinions disrupts the intellectual and moral development of society. From this standpoint, tolerating views we hate is a very small price to pay for society’s intellectual and moral development. Tolerance is a virtue because it takes people very seriously. It recognises that, without allowing people the freedom to err, society will find it difficult to find its way to the truth.

In recent decades, tolerance has been redefined as a polite gesture of non-judgementalism. In official documents and school texts, tolerance is presented as a polite character trait, rather than as a way of responding to beliefs and views with which one disagrees. Indeed, school texts on tolerance frequently treat it as synonymous with non-judgementalism. Non-judgementalism is indeed a passive act, as it involves a refusal to criticise and engage with conflicting views. But non-judgementalism is alien to the principle of tolerance. Being tolerant involves the act of judgement because we can only be tolerant towards beliefs and views with which we disagree. According to the classical-liberal ideal, tolerance involves an act of judgement and discrimination.

The reluctance to extend tolerance to those we deem as intolerant invariably reflects society’s estrangement from judgement.

Response to Férdia Stone Davis

I found Férdia Stone Davis’s comments on intellectual virtues and openness both very interesting. I wish I had read her points about feedback and failure in an academic setting before writing my book since it would have helped me to further clarify and expand my argument about judgement.

Stone Davis notes that ‘feedback is inextricably linked with judgement’. I believe that the relationship between feedback and judgement can also be interpreted slightly differently than Stone Davis explains. According to her, feedback has become an object of research and that there are guidelines about the most effective way of communicating it. It is certainly the case that at all levels of education there are now guidelines and procedures that govern the provision of providing students with feedback. However, this transformation of feedback into a procedure has important implications for the exercise of academic and professional judgement. When teachers give feedback in accordance with the rules outlined in a template, then academic judgement becomes denuded of much of its content. Following a feedback process requires little thought and certainly relieves a teacher of the burden of judgement. It short-circuits the application of discretion and judgement and ultimately deprives students of being confronted with the very important challenges posed through the exercise of professional judgement.

Stone Davis is right to draw attention to the important relationship between failure and judgement, and I agree that this is a point that is certainly worthy of greater discussion, particularly as it pertains to the pursuit of intellectual inquiry. The risks and rewards to the courageous pursuit of intellectual inquiry is well explained by Stone Davis and I am in full accord with her point about the significance of intellectual virtues.

The one argument that Stone Davis advances which I struggle with is the claim that ‘returning to openness as a virtue is key to the development of the intellectual life and to our capacity to judge – as such it is relevant not only to universities but to all aspects of life’. Intuitively, I understand that Stone Davis is absolutely right but, given the degradation of the concept of openness, its reappropriation as a positive ideal faces important challenges. The main obstacle to the returning of openness as a virtue is, as I argue in Why Borders Matter, due to the fact that it has become represented as the rhetorical partner of non-judgementalism. In its current usage as a value, openness conveys the assumption that the making of judgement is a marker for closeness or a closed personality.

I am all for the reappropriation of the liberal version of openness since the capacity to yield to another people’s argument and experience is the precondition for the flourishing of both intellectual and public life. However, I have drawn the conclusion that the most promising way of achieving what Stone Davis calls ‘true exchange and engagement’ is through the advocacy and promotion of another misunderstood term, which is that of tolerance. Tolerance involves both a willingness to judge and a commitment to keep open lines of communication and intellectual exchange.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.


  • Furedi, F. (2011) On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence, London: Continuum.

  • Korsgaard, C.M. (2009) Self-Constitution: Agency and Integrity, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Furedi, F. (2011) On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence, London: Continuum.

  • Korsgaard, C.M. (2009) Self-Constitution: Agency and Integrity, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • 1 University of Kent, , UK

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