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Borders matter and they’re everywhere

By Dr Anthony Lewis

Anthony is Chair of Windsor Humanists and Chair of the South Central England Humanists Network. In this article he argues that, In our age of globalisation, polarisation, and borderless virtual communities, it's vital that we find effective methods of managing the tension between our tribal instincts and our desire for global collaboration without resorting to violence.

Borders matter. Everything that exists has a border, and borders delineate the boundary between existence and non-existence. They define shared characteristics, coherence and functionality. They also define separation and difference. Borders are a fundamental aspect of the natural world and they are critical to the operation of all living organisms. Our bodies at the cellular level could not function without them. Without borders, the evolution of life would have been impossible. They are also crucial to the operation of modern society, including borders which are socially-constructed. Without borders, reality would collapse into chaos, incoherence and high levels of disorder and entropy. At one level, this is all self-evident, obvious and banal. But our view of reality may be altered in important ways when we become more conscious of borders. Borders matter, they are everywhere, and they are essential. Let's explore four aspects of borders: identities, organisations, families and friendship, and the nation state.

The trouble with identities

I grew up in Northern Ireland during the so called ‘Troubles’. I was an English gay Catholic boy so I never fitted easily into any of the categories of difference that have fuelled the decades-long strife in the province. The experience taught me that national borders do matter, as clearly some people are willing to commit the most atrocious violence either to delineate or remove them. But these early experiences also taught me that the physical borders that partitioned both the island of Ireland and the British Isles in equal measure, were not the borders that really mattered. What mattered most were the barricades of difference erected in people's hearts and minds, separating those within our emotional borders of allegiance as ‘one of us’ from those ‘outside’. These are the affiliations we often call our identity or, as we say in Northern Ireland, our ‘Tradition’. These tribal affiliations are part of the human experience, forged by evolution to enhance our individual chances of survival, and much more difficult to deal with than any lines of jurisdiction drawn on a map.

The two traditions in Northern Ireland, often termed Republicans (or Nationalists) and Unionists (or Loyalists), are defined by religious, cultural and political fault lines – a toxic mix. It's a controversial view, but I don't consider Northern Ireland to be fully at peace. Since the Good Friday Belfast ‘Peace’ Agreement was signed in 1998 there's been an uneasy truce between the two traditions. In my opinion, there has been very little attempt made to seek genuine reconciliation over the last twenty-five years. Instead, the sectarian divide has become more entrenched. I joke with my family who still live in Ireland that until a Presbyterian becomes the head of the Gaelic Sporting Association and Catholics are accepted as members in Orange Order flute bands, these ‘borders of the mind’ will endure. If anything, they have been strengthened and institutionalised by the peace settlement. The fact that many people consider my test of genuine peace to be preposterous shows how rigid and fixed the tribal borders of each tradition remain in people's hearts.

John Hume, the moderate Catholic politician and tireless campaigner for peace, often pointed out that you could not remove such borders through force because violence only serves to harden hearts and further entrench tribal allegiances. Hume is credited with bringing an end to the violence through negotiating directly with the IRA, at great risk to his own life from extremists on both sides of ‘the divide’. In 1998, he won the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with David Trimble, a brave politician from the Unionist side. I'm proud to say that I met both of these remarkable men, and I was able to shake their hands to thank them for being such consistent advocates for peace and reconciliation. John Hume wished for a united Ireland but always made it clear that an Ireland united by the bullet was not an Ireland he wanted to live in. If only the world had more men like them.

Source - Shuttercock
Loyalist mural in Belfast

What I also learnt from my upbringing is that once violence is perceived to be a legitimate tool to achieve political objectives, things quickly descend into repeated cycles of horror. In Northern Ireland, the majority of people on both sides were moderates who eschewed the use of force. But this peaceful majority became irrelevant once a significant minority of extremists on both sides had found a way to justify their use of violence. It's a vicious cycle fed by myths, lies, ideological fervour and victimhood – a trap for the whole community from which it is very hard to escape. When identity, tribal allegiances and use of force take precedence over our common humanity and mutual understanding, the result is despair and disaster. Everyone suffers during a violent upheaval, and compromise and reconciliation become almost impossible for a long time afterwards.

So the virtual borders in our hearts and minds clearly matter, and sometimes they can be represented in the real world as simple lines on a map. However, it is often impossible to represent the complexity of our multiple overlapping identities and allegiances as geographic boundaries. In Northern Ireland the two traditions live uneasily as neighbour, in a complex mosaic of communities where delineation by simple lines is not possible. As an English Catholic boy growing up in Northern Ireland, these divisions carved a path through my heart.

“The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956

Many of the world’s most intractable conflicts are similar to the situation in Northern Ireland. They are often in regions where multiple identities based on ethnicity, religion, language and culture interact and reinforce each other. This leads directly to the conditions in which violence can be incubated by extremists who foster inter-communal suspicion, promote rigid intransigence and deliberately seek to create mutual resentment. In these situations the only way to break out of vicious cycles of violence is to build mutual respect and understanding through dialogue. To achieve this requires courageous leaders from both sides, like John Hume and David Trimble, to reach across the ‘communal divides’ to seek reconciliation and to build connections. Enduring peace always stands on the shoulders of such brave leaders, who are able to transcend tribal allegiances. Over time, it can be possible to reframe people's identities, in a way that recognises their differences but which also identifies a broader and more inclusive set of shared affiliations. In Northern Ireland this process has not progressed very far over the last twenty-five years, despite the uneasy truce, but at least a start has been made. In Israel and Palestine, identities are so rigid and intractable that it is hard to envisage any such process of reconciliation towards peaceful co-existence starting anytime soon, especially given the ongoing war.

A multitude of organisations

In our daily lives, we are surrounded by a multitude of organisational boundaries of various kinds. Our modern economies, civil society and daily existence depend on the complex interaction between all of these diverse entities. The arrangements can be informal, such as our membership of a local community group controlled via a constitution or an agreed set of aims like those which guide the Humanistically Speaking production team. Or they can be more formal and legal entities defined in law: public sector enterprises such as a university or the NHS; charities or non-profit organisations such as Humanists UK or the Samaritans; or private commercial businesses such as Amazon or British Airways.

We are all members of many different organisations

All of these organisations have borders that are socially constructed and which delineate those who belong inside and those who sit outside a defined category or interaction. They are borders of belonging or significance, separating people into different categories such as employees and customers. Membership of these social constructs is often controlled explicitly by contract, or implicitly by unwritten consent. Unlike the rather rigid sectarian identities mentioned above, all of us can be members of many different types of organisations, fulfilling many different types of roles, all at the same time. Our memberships and continued interactions often depend on our adherence to the principles and rules of each of the organisations we interact with or are members of. The complexity of these very diverse human organisations is enormous. Defining their separate areas of jurisdiction and the active management of the borders between them are essential to their effective operation.

Family and friendship boundaries

Our daily lives are also governed by important familial, friendship and personal boundaries. Our mental health depends fundamentally on managing all of these emotional borders and our relationships with other humans both inside and outside our affiliated groups. Some of these ‘virtual borders’, such as marriage, divorce, adoption, etc., are recognised in law. Others, such as the bonds of family and close friends, are controlled by cultural norms and our natural instincts. Many aspects of the cultural arts are focused on the difficulties of managing the constantly shifting boundaries of our human and organisational relationships. Our ability to collaborate in groups of ever-increasing complexity and manage the myriad of resulting social and group relationships is what separates us from other living creatures.

Human progress has been driven by our ability as a species to collaborate via the medium of different types of human organisations. This has enabled us to harness and amplify our individual talents for the benefit of all, by pooling our resources and by becoming greater than the sum of our parts. Our individual efforts are enhanced enormously through such collective collaborations. As the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has discovered, our cognitive capacity limits each of us to around 150 meaningful human relationships. As a result, there is a limit to how many social and organisational borders we can personally manage. It is clear that all of us, every day, have to manage this complex array of physical, organisational and relationship borders from the individual level up to the largest group levels. Being able to competently manage our constantly shifting group memberships at all scales is a fundamental part of the human condition, and what defines us as human beings.

Borderline states

It's no surprise then that as human society has become more complex in recent centuries, with the number and type of competing groups, diverse identities and organisations growing rapidly, the need to establish new and more effective governance and co-ordination of all these different interests has become increasingly essential. The nation state emerged out of this chaotic period through a process of innovation, trial and error, and also through wars, revolution, and horrific violence, to establish effective administration of society through new institutions of government under the rule of law. This process of evolution of our institutions and law-based mechanisms for securing peaceful co-operation is still ongoing today and is far from complete.

As philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote in the late 1600s, the nation state is “the only means of self-preservation whereby the individual can escape the brutish cycle of mutual destruction that is otherwise the result of his contact with others”.

Encyclopaedia Britannica defines the state as “a form of human association distinguished from other social groups by its purpose, the establishment of order and security; its methods, the laws and their enforcement; its territory, the area of jurisdiction or geographic boundaries; and finally by its sovereignty.” By this definition, the state exists to set the parameters within which all of the various communities and organisations within a defined geographic area operate, and the rules under which disputes are settled under the existing laws. The state’s main purpose is therefore mainly administrative and governmental. The state's existence is essential for the peaceful functioning of our modern, complex societies. The violent consequences when a state fails or is captured by despotic ideologues are very much in evidence in recent history and around the world today.

According to the UN, there are at the moment 234 states, with an average population of thirty-five million people, as illustrated in the diagram above. There are only seven countries with populations over 200 million (USA, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Brazil, China and India), and thirty-eight countries with populations below 100,000. This distribution indicates that there are natural limits to how large a state can grow whilst maintaining effectiveness and coherence. Such a log-normal distribution, where the median population of seven million is much less than the mean population of thirty-five million, is typically observed in nature whenever there is a dynamic equilibrium between complexly interacting opposing pressures.

Respecting our boundaries is essential for human progress

The pressures for countries to break apart through regionalisation can be seen in many areas of the world, such the Basque and Catalonia regions in Spain, or Quebec in Canada, and they are driven by the desire for more direct accountability and closer affiliation. The forces driving countries and regions together, such as the desire for economic efficiency and increased global influence and power, can also be seen, for example, in the European Union with its single currency and internal market. The Brexit debate in the UK was a dramatic example of these opposing forces. They represent the ongoing and dynamic process of continuous re-alignment of allegiances, sovereignty and affiliation which is unlikely ever to be finally resolved given the complexity of human affairs.

Over the last century, we have also witnessed the emergence of powerful new global supra-national organisations that extend beyond state jurisdictions. For example, there are companies such as Google and Apple with global reach, there are powerful non-governmental and non-profit organisations such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, and there are governmental organisations such as the UN and the OECD. All of them reflect the need for humankind to find new global mechanisms of operation and collaboration, given that, as a species, we are now having a global impact on the Earth's ecosystems. This globalisation is occurring at the same time as social media technologies are driving an increasingly fractious polarisation of new and old tribal loyalties, and increasing disaffection. We are still groping forward to put in place the mechanisms to control these new boundaries and borders. We made a start with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which demonstrates the importance of openness, freedom of expression, and mutual respect as the primary ways to manage our differences. However, we still have a long way to go to find ways to settle our differences peacefully without resorting to violence.

Final words - borders do matter

In the complex tapestry of global affairs, reconciliation and peaceful co-existence often seem elusive due to intractable borders of identity and rigid tribal allegiances fuelled by extremist ideologies. However, history has shown us the power of dialogue and understanding, championed by courageous leaders who dare to transcend tribal barriers in fostering enduring peace, as illustrated by the case of Northern Ireland. Over time, it is possible to reshape identities in a way that cherishes differences and cultivates a more inclusive set of shared affiliations. In the era of globalisation and borderless virtual communities, our challenge is to balance tribal loyalties with global cooperation, using the tools of openness, freedom of expression, and mutual respect as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As we continue to manage the tensions between globalisation and regionalisation, let us remember that borders, which are often seen as barriers, can also serve as catalysts for human progress. They delineate the meaningful spaces in which we can develop distinctive cultures and identities and in which we can foster tolerance, friendship and mutual respect across borders.

Useful links

Definition of a nation state in Britannica -

UN World Population Statistics -

Worldometers for total global population -

World Population Map from 2018 by Our World in Data -

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1 Comment

Jesus Kummerow
Jesus Kummerow
Dec 04, 2023

Very interesting analysis of how borders can aggregate or separate people in our societies. Borders need to exist in order to define and maintain our individual identity, while we develop respect and tolerance and respect. Borders are also necessary to identify the skills we need to develop, in order to belong to broader, more complex organizations.

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