Borders

by Dominic Blackwell

When people now think about borders, they think about lines on a map, reinforced by men with guns. But physical and legal borders just the tip of the iceberg. Most borders live in the mind.

If you describe a group as ‘the people in this room’, you are describing people who have at least some shared physical experience. They can see each other. They can make judgments based on behaviour.

If you describe a group as ‘the people who live in this house’, you could have people with a lot more shared experience. They people may have known each others for years and have a shared history of cooperation, arguments and dealing with external problems.

But if you describe a group by their gender, sexuality, religion, citizenship or any number of other attributes you are doing something very different. Most citizens of most countries have never met each other. Once you get past shared physical space things change rapidly. Inhabitants of a city may have shared experience of the city centre but they may not know anything about a residential area where no-one they have ever visited lives.

So, the dangers of borders come when they are drawn between strangers, between an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ where you haven’t got shared experience in real physical spaces with most members of either. Communications technologies, from books and newspapers through television to the internet and social media create the illusion that remote people can be known and judged. But judging people on streams of text and images, even on video footage is deeply unreliable. Words are symbols of things, not things themselves. Even an unfiltered camera is a very selective tool. Passing judgment on someone you don’t know is like literary or film criticism. It’s saying I don’t like that story, or that image or that sound.

But you could get on with an author without enjoying their books. You could find someone very attractive performing to a camera but annoying in real life. Most importantly, an image of someone, whether in words, images or video is of someone — it is not that person.

Even in real life with real world, shared experiences, we get things wrong. We misunderstand each other, jump to the wrong conclusions and perceive slights where none was meant. But if you are with a real person, there is always the chance to revise your judgement. Someone who appeared cold may warm up. Someone who seemed likeable may have a dark side. But all impressions are provisional.

So it should be clear why borders between people we don’t know are so dangerous. They create false affinities if we think other people are ‘like us’. Really? In everything? Are they clones of us? They all think like us? They create false enmities if we think other people are ‘not like us’. In any respect? No shared humanity? You don’t live on the same planet, breathe the same air? They hate absolutely everything you love?

The most sociable, gregarious, well-travelled person will meet only a minute sample of the human beings alive at the same time as them. We know next to nothing about almost everyone else.

Therefore, we should have some humility about how little we know and have a deep distrust for the drawing of borders between strangers.

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