Making Distinctions: The Value of Walls and Boundaries

The one and the many is an ancient philosophical puzzle. If the world weren’t a unity of some sort, it wouldn’t form a world. Still, there are a variety of things in it. How can both aspects be real, so that things are the same as well as different? It seems somehow more profound to emphasize oneness, and say that distinctions are illusory. Differences matter as well as similarities, though, so sanity and practicality require us to recognize both.

The difficulty, and the complexities sanity and practicality force on us, apply socially as well as metaphysically. Which social distinctions are real? Fundamental? Legitimate? It seems a sign of moral elevation to emphasize human unity. On the other hand, human diversity is real too, so the normal view has been the commonsensical one that distinctions matter somewhat, and often quite a lot, even though unity is more basic. That’s why Kipling tells us in “The Ballad of East and West” that “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,” but notes that the differences drop away “when two strong men stand face to face.” And Paul, who famously tells us that in Christ there is no race, class, or gender, displays no inclination to do away with such distinctions as an everyday practical matter. His point is not that they are illegitimate, any more than the distinction between private citizen and Caesar or married and unmarried, but that they are subordinate to a more basic unity.

In modern times, for all the talk of accepting ambiguities, people don’t like contemplation of open-ended mysteries or subtleties that can’t be fully grasped. They want to do away with ancient conundrums like mind and body, God and man, the one and the many, and favor simple forceful arguments that rely on a very few clear principles that tell us how to get things done. They agree with Marx: “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

The implicit goal of that way of thinking is to reduce the human world to a clear rational order oriented toward practical ends. On such an approach the metaphysical problem of the one and the many disappears, and the social problem becomes that of achieving efficiency, uniformity, and control in the face of the multiplicity of situations and human types. The solution that’s been adopted is a technocratic one: turn society into a unitary machine composed of interchangeable parts distinguished only by function, and wall off pursuits that are not part of the machine by ostensibly liberating them while keeping them strictly private and therefore irrelevant to the functioning of the machine and the activities of other people.

That solution follows the same industrial logic that applies uniform grades and standards to ball bearings instead of looking at who produced them. It tells us that a CEO can legitimately be distinguished from an intern, and someone with a degree in mechanical engineering from someone trained as a janitor, with large differences in salary, respect, working conditions, and job security. In contrast, distinctions like sex, religion, and cultural community, which are neither simply private nor designed to promote the functioning of commercial and bureaucratic organizations, have to be deprived of all practical significance and turned into private lifestyle or consumption choices.

Man is a religious and moral or at least a self-justifying animal, so he claims that whatever he does is the best thing to do for some lofty reason. The Marxist idea that economic organization determines moral ideals therefore makes sense in a world that puts economic concerns first. In such a world people do what the interests of the dominant classes tell them to do, and say it’s the will of God, History, Human Rights, or whatever else counts as the highest principle in public discussion. It is therefore not surprising that “inclusiveness”—abolition of distinctions not specially relevant to commercial and bureaucratic forms of social organization—has become the highest ideal publicly recognized today.

The change is evident in Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” which begins “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” takes as its symbol a barrier that is a useless imposition rather than an enduring human reality, as in Kipling’s poem, and compares the neighbor who wants to maintain it to “an old-stone savage armed [who] moves in darkness.” That’s the way inherited distinctions had come to seem by 1914, at least in New England, and the tendency to view them that way has only grown since then. Traditional boundaries are now seen as presumptively oppressive and invalid, so much so that “transgressive” has become a term of praise.

The Church has not been immune to that development, so she too has seen attacks on traditional distinctions in many aspects of her life. Paul’s statement that in Christ there is no male or female is thought to sit very oddly with the male priesthood, and theologians tell us that Jesus’ message is one of radical inclusiveness, because he transgressed boundaries by associating with prostitutes and tax collectors. (He does not seem, however, to have encouraged them to affirm their identities as such.)

The Catholic Church, with its strong principle of tradition and divine protection against ultimate defection, has been less venturesome in such matters than other ecclesial communities. Still, they have had their effects: ritual has become more mundane in recent decades, sacred language has fallen into disuse, and the distinction between lay and ordained has been blurred where possible. Further, the public moral witness of Church leaders has tended to follow the prevailing trend of moral sentiment to the extent permitted by doctrine. There has been little opposition to feminism, except with regard to abortion and the male priesthood, and princes of the Church have recently made “immigration reform,” basically meaning free movement across national boundaries for purposes of permanent settlement, a high priority moral cause. Most recently some have even proposed cutting back on the distinctiveness of marriage, at least as a practical matter, for example by changing the rules for reception of communion by the civilly divorced and remarried.

Still, it should be obvious that boundaries matter, and good fences do indeed make good neighbors. They provide a zone of peace and freedom within which particular ways of life and networks of human connections can establish themselves and function. That principle applies at the level of the family: it is why an Englishman’s home is said to be his castle. More basically, it is part of the reason a man leaves his father and mother, cleaves to his wife to the exclusion of all others, and forms a new family. Man is social, so the same principle applies at higher levels as well. If we don’t have national communities and boundaries, for example, we’ll have other walls: the walled quarters of the traditional polyglot Middle Eastern city or the gates of gated communities.

The Church recognizes the need for walls and boundaries in her own case. Jesus speaks of the sheepfold, which is defined by its walls, and from ancient times Catholics have spoken of the Barque of Peter, with its hull that keeps out waves, sharks, and seaweed. The Book of Revelation even talks of the walls of the New Jerusalem, which are needed to create a defined space and world even after all need for exclusion and protection has vanished.

Nobody wants to destroy all distinctions. To abolish them is to abolish the institutions and ways of life to which they relate, so people want to keep the ones that relate to matters they care about. Academic radicals may be willing to accept feminist abolition of the family and multicultural destruction of the functioning of specific culture, but few prominent ones want to abolish the PhD or the tenured chair.

Such considerations don’t answer specific questions by themselves, but they do put the issue of walls and distinctions in a different light. Barriers can be injurious, but we should not treat them as suspect in principle. As often, Chesterton showed good sense with his counsel to leave fences in place unless their functions and purposes are thoroughly understood so we can know what it would mean to get rid of them.

Editor’s note: The image above is a photo of the wall protecting the Vatican.


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

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