Most of the great issues in society today are boundary issues. Some are literally about borders—immigration, for example, or territory and sovereignty disputes. But many boundary arguments, such as those about inclusion, are more metaphorical. Should the LGBT community have the same legal rights as the straight community? Can someone who was born Caucasian pass as African American? Can someone change genders, and what are the implications of such a choice?
Increasingly, the pressure is against setting boundaries. Restriction, limitation and exclusion all seem sides of the same attempt to keep privileges for some and not permit them to others. While recognizing that boundaries keep us safe—the walls of our homes, the bars of the prison, the lines on the road—we feel uneasy when they are used to keep some outside.
Religious communities constantly grapple with the question of who belongs. Clergy puzzle over intermarriages and maintaining faith traditions in blended families. Worldwide faith traditions wonder how to keep cohesion when practices and assumptions differ so greatly in different communities. Who has the right to proclaim that this person is a legitimate clergyman and that one is not? But is there anything left to a religion if someone can simply stand up and say, “I have just decided I am a Rabbi/Priest/Minister/Imam”?
These are not easy questions. Institutions keep their integrity in part by exclusion. If every student were permitted into Harvard University, it would no longer be Harvard. If everyone who wanted to be a citizen of the U.S. could simply declare his own citizenship, the U.S. would cease to be a sovereign nation. The flip side of the uncomfortable feeling of boundaries is their ineradicable necessity. Wars are fought about boundaries; they are the lines by which we live.
Ours is a culture of grievance, where taking offense is always legitimate but giving it rarely is. Therefore the one who wishes to proclaim boundaries is asking for trouble. Diversity and multiculturalism are built on the porousness of boundaries while simultaneously suspicious of them: Members of minorities are a clearly self-defined group, but exclusion of any kind is the most charged accusation. We very strictly define those who have traditionally been excluded, creating a boundary to help a group overcome a boundary. Such ideas with all their concomitant confusions have taken a powerful hold on our campuses.
We are born with boundaries, the very body that is a barrier to the outside world even as it is open to that same world. We are practiced in respecting lines and changing them. Each group in society defines the lines in ways favorable to them. Even those who protest about boundaries generally wish them to be drawn as well, just differently. Our challenge is to live with lines but understand that they will be shifted and reevaluated.
The best guide may be Edwin Markham’s poem “Outwitted”: