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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Boundary: What Can Be Owned? Part 2

If we desire to remain creative people, we must develop an appreciation for frontiers, and for the dynamics that take place at boundary lines where our present understanding confronts the unknown. In its earlier decades, America became as free, creative, and materially productive as it did because of its frontier nature. Its relatively unstructured social environment served as a frontier for millions of European immigrants who left the relative certainty of their institutionalized homelands for the opportunities existing in an uncertain land. Many of their Medieval ancestors, in their time, had left their subject status and gone to undeveloped lands in Europe. In these frontiers, they cleared forests and set up new settlements, an undertaking that “conferred liberty on the colonizers … [and] elevated them from slavery and serfdom.”5 Frontiers have long held out to men and women the promise that a portion of the world could become theirs to own and control for their purposes. In such environments, people have been free to innovate and adapt themselves to new situations without being compelled to conform to the demands of an established hierarchy of authority.
In the same way, the undeveloped West—a flexible concept that continually redefined itself as western Pennsylvania, then Ohio, then Nebraska, then Utah, then Oregon—served as a frontier for those living in the more institutionally established eastern states. When early Dutch settlers tried to impose a feudal system along the upper Hudson River, they found little interest expressed by those who had the option of easily moving elsewhere. The frontier served as a boundary separating the more established from the relatively undeveloped into which people could freely move. As such, frontiers provided environments of decentralized and limited political authority, wherein independence and alternative social systems could flourish. It was this relationship that pressured eastern states not to become too restrictive of the activities of those trying to further their interests. This arrangement provided Americans with an effective check upon the more established states’ tendencies for institutional rigidification and, in the process, allowed people to remain free and productive for many decades.6
Frontiers are not defined geographically as much as they represent a state of mind, a willingness to see opportunities in relative uncertainty. Imagination—the capacity to see beyond the boundaries of the known—has long been the frontier for creative minds. To believe that a physical environment by itself, without any volition on our part, has the power to transform us is to engage in mechanistic thinking. Indeed, there were many settlers in the early west, who, insisted upon what they perceived as the “protection” of the state (e.g., in the form of a military presence). Implicit in the dynamics along a frontier is the interplay between “stability” and “change;” between the established and the new, along with the existence of individuals capable of and willing to pursue alternative courses of action. The liberty to commit one’s life and property interests to such opportunities is central to this process. The implications of this have been noted by Alfred North Whitehead: “the vivid people keep moving on, geographically and otherwise, for men can be provincial in time, as well as in place.”7
One of the most significant boundaries we encounter is related to our learning and other creative activities. Having learned what we believe to be a sufficient body of knowledge, we resist efforts to think beyond the boundaries of the known (i.e., to “think outside the circle”) and to explore the unknown. Scientists, inventors, and philosophers have been among the more noted examples of persons discouraged or even threatened by those who insisted upon what one writer labeled “the saber-toothed curriculum.”8 The ways in which our minds create barriers (“boundaries”) that circumscribe our behavior were reflected in events leading up to the running of a sub-four-minute mile. For years, it was assumed that running a mile in less than four minutes was impossible, and while many came close none was able to accomplish the task until 1954, when the Englishman Roger Bannister ran the mile in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. It was not long after that boundary-breaking event that many other runners accomplished the same feat.
As our social world continues its apparent transformation into horizontal networks, we are likely to find ourselves at the boundaries of a new frontier: society itself. As decentralization expands the realms of our personal authority, we will find ourselves exploring radically new social assumptions concerning what it is appropriate for each of us to control, and how to freely cooperate and exchange with one another. We may then discover the informal systems of order and other spontaneous processes that work, beneath the surface of events in our lives, to instill the peaceful and productive conditions that make society decent. As we continue to explore such new territory, we may discover one another in totally new relationships, as well as the social harmony that arises as an unintended consequence of the pursuit of our respective self-interests.
The dynamics of chaos and complexity that help to transform our understanding of the world—including the organizational premises of our social systems—are particularly relevant to our inquiry. One of the central features in this emerging field of study involves the boundary transition that occurs when a system moves from linear regularity to chaotic turbulence. Bifurcation points represent boundaries, separating entropic and negentropic courses of conduct. As such, something either destructive or creative can occur along boundary lines. The study of such processes reveals patterns of heretofore undiscovered order embedded within our complicated world, regularities that take on the qualities of new boundaries. Related dynamics occurring along boundaries are seen in creative acts, wherein innovation confronts the outmoded; novelty challenges the status quo.
Humor seems to be a reflection of our unconscious mind’s awareness of the harmony found in seemingly contradictory relationships. Whether we are considering jokes, puns, sight gags, witticisms, irony, or satire, humor provides a pleasurable meaning because it gives us the opportunity to integrate what our conscious mind tells us is to be segregated. James Thurber described “humour” as “emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.”9 It operates along the boundary lines separating the expected from the unexpected, sometimes bouncing back and forth from one side of the line to the other, giving us glimpses of the complementary nature of the world. This is what gives puns their potency: a word or phrase used to communicate different meanings than when such expressions are used in a different context. Puns challenge the boundary lines of what we like to think of as the mutually-exclusive meanings of our abstractions.
Optical illusions also generate fuzziness along boundary lines. Is the staircase ascending or descending? Do we see a vase, or two faces looking at one another? Is it a beautiful woman, or an old lady? M.C. Escher developed a unique art style in which different objects shared common boundaries in one of the better-known expressions of symmetry. We find amusement in these patterns that alternate, but which our dualistic minds find difficulty in seeing simultaneously.
As we have seen, there is an unavoidable information loss in the use of abstractions—particularly words—as we endeavor to understand and negotiate with the world. Words must always be interpreted and, in our efforts to do so, we discover that they often have an elusive quality to them; that they can play tricks on us as we struggle to define their respective boundary lines. They have no inherent meaning, and when we turn to a dictionary for help, we discover that they can only be defined in terms of other words, other abstractions. We are familiar with the common role of synonyms, wherein different words may mean the same thing (e.g., “poetry” and “verse”). Even differing words of seemingly opposite denotation may be used synonymously. In modern usage, for example, “hot” and “cool” can have the same meaning, just as—in my teenage years—the phrase “what’s going on?” meant the same as “what’s coming off?” But the same word—a contronym—will sometimes have a diametrically opposed meaning. The word “sanction,” for instance, may mean either a form of approval or of punishment. “Custom” may refer to something that is common or, alternatively, something produced for special order. The word “oversight” can mean either to pay attention to something, or to fail to do so.
Many of our conflicts arise from a failure to acknowledge the hazy nature of all abstractions. Like Humpty Dumpty, we are inclined to the proposition that “when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”10 Our world would become less strife-ridden were we to become aware that the boundaries of our concepts do not have the concrete and objective meanings we like to imagine they enjoy.
As a social system, boundaries have a dualistic quality: whether our relationships with others are peaceful or violent is reflected in the degree of respect we accord their inviolate nature. A socially troublesome aspect of boundaries is found in the practice of identifying ourselves through what Fritz Perls has called “ego-boundary” abstractions.11 We learn to identify ourselves in terms of collective abstractions. While our more distant ancestors identified themselves with their tribe, clan, or race, most of us modernly identify ourselves with our nationality, race, religion, social class, gender, ideology, economic interests, geography, or other abstractions.12 Through such thinking, we define “who we are” by reference to various social sub-groupings that are either institutional in nature, or are exploited for institutional purposes. Through this same thinking, we embroil ourselves in wars, genocides, racial confrontations, and even riots between competing fans over the outcome of soccer games. These are among the more violent consequences of our failure to respect the inviolability of one another’s “ego-boundaries.” We think of ourselves in terms of such abstractions, a holdover from the most primitive ways of regarding ourselves. We become integrated with those who share our boundaries, and alienated from those who are not encompassed within our borders.
It is not just that such categories describe us in some physically observable way (e.g., gender, skin color, age), but that we have learned to give them existential significance. They go to the essence of how we think of ourselves. We may identify ourselves by the color of our skin, but not of our eyes, because our minds have attached meaning to one set of abstract distinctions but not others. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that, for most of us, our identities are our lives. If you doubt this, try describing yourself without making use of any collective abstractions. In the words of the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, “who are you?”
Ego-boundary thinking, another expression of our dualistic way of organizing our experiences, has collectivized our minds and created our world of institutionally-directed conflict and disorder. By identifying ourselves with any category of persons, we necessarily separate ourselves from those who are not part of our group. Being other than us, they become less than us. When the interests of one group come into contact with those of another, particularly along the boundary lines that divide one group from another, conflicts easily arise.
Political institutions thrive by encouraging the development of various group identities. Insisting upon maintaining the clear distinctions of our collective boundary lines, they help to foment conflicts among such groups and then offer to mediate the very differences it has been in the state’s interests to foster! It is a racket, which, if engaged in by private parties, would result in long prison sentences. Look at how easily governments have been able to mobilize their citizens into wars against other nations, or to create discord between “consumers” and “retailers,” “employers” and “employees,” “environmentalists” and “lumber companies,” “parents” and “school officials,” “gays” and “straights,” “immigrants” and “native-born,” along with racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and other sub-groupings of people. As the state expands the range of its decision making over our property, it necessarily enlarges the boundaries that separate us from one another while increasing the likelihood of personal and social conflict. The dispute that I might have with my neighbor over a fence line is, by its nature, localized. Given the personal, rather than abstract, nature of our relationship, our differences are likely to be resolved amicably. However, as we become drawn into politically generated quarrels with abstract categories of people whose existence may span the globe, the boundaries of our interests not only become more depersonalized, but take on global dimensions. Doesn’t this describe the deadly confrontations that set strangers against one another for no other reason than their being members of opposing nation-states or political or religious factions?
As our thinking becomes more abstract and institutionally centered, we tend to deprive ourselves of the qualities that make us human. The abstract differs from the concrete. Human beings function on the basis of blood, emotions, pain, fears, and dreams, while institutions—such as the state or corporations— tend to operate upon such abstractions as statistics, collective trends, and chain-of-command decision-making. The same person who can feel sadness over the death of an unknown child can, when identifying himself with the state, feel a sense of indifference to statistical reports of the wartime deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians.
A moment’s reflection should make us aware of how our “ego-boundary” practices are based on the same dynamics as those at work in property. Each provides a way of asserting our will upon the world, to the end that we may develop and express our sense of who we are. One can think of ego identification as a form of claim staking in the world of collective identities. The patriot who reacts to the defiling of his nation’s flag; or the religious believer who takes angry offense at a cartoon that ridicules a man he regards as sacred, experiences every bit —if not more—the sense of being trespassed as is felt by a homeowner who has been the victim of a burglary. Perls has characterized the conflict that arises from such identity disputes as boundary clashes, which are more likely to occur along boundary lines than at a distance. For this reason, he adds, India is more likely to go to war with China, than with Finland.13
Ego-boundary trespasses abound in such areas as political and religious behavior. One very emotional, property-related issue has to do with the burning of an American flag as a form of political protest. The arguments on behalf of making flag burning a crime emphasize the state’s interest in protecting an image, a symbol that is used to mobilize people to identify with the nation-state. But how does one describe and locate an image or a symbol? What are its boundaries? Is it simply the cloth from which the flag was made? A reading of flag desecration statutes extends the offense to any representation of the flag, including a photograph or a school-child’s drawing thereof. Furthermore, the burning of an old flag is the institutionally accepted way of disposing of it, meaning that the state of mind of the burner defines the offense!
In order to have a trespass there must be a boundary to be trespassed. But when dealing with ego-boundaries, such qualities are the products of the mind; visions, impressions, sentiments, and other emotions fashioned, in a multitude of forms and meanings, from the unique experiences of each person. The flag burning issue is but one more illustration of the fallacy that politics unites people into a harmonious whole. Any nation is, after all, composed of millions of unique personalities, with diverse tastes, values, dreams, and opinions. We are simply too varied to permit an easy consolidation under collective images to which we attach a common meaning. To a war veteran, the flag may represent the virtue of obedience to authority, or a symbol of a sense of duty. To a war protester, it may represent either a symbol of collective violence or a nation’s commitment to an unrestrained freedom of individual expression. A dollar sign symbolizes totally different values to a follower of Ayn Rand than it does to an idealistic ascetic, just as a swastika conjures up divergent images and emotions to Jews, neo-Nazis, Buddhists, Tibetans, and American Indians.
Just how muddled most of us are with notions of property was expressed by a lawyer who defended flag desecration laws by arguing that, if burning the flag was an exercise of free speech, one would have to defend the painting of swastikas on synagogues as free speech. Such disordered thinking arises from a failure to clearly define one’s conceptual boundaries, adding to the general confusion over the meaning of property. A person who paints a swastika—or, for that matter, street-gang graffiti, or the phrase “John loves Mary”—on a building owned by another, is not engaging in free speech, but committing a trespass upon that property. It is the violation of the synagogue’s property boundaries—not the swastika itself—that makes this a trespass. Such an act extends one’s decision making beyond one’s own property boundaries and invades the boundaries of another—if a man chooses to paint a swastika on his own house, that would be an expression of free speech.
The example of the defiled synagogue would be more apropos to a situation in which an individual, without the permission of the owner, burns a flag owned by another. If Smith burned a flag owned by Jones, this would amount to a property trespass, as would Smith’s burning of Jones’ car. But flag desecration statutes are not designed to protect the property interests of flag owners, but the imagery through which political institutions function. Since images and symbolism, like art or pornography, have meaning and existence only within the minds of individuals, the state cannot identify any clear boundary that would give it a property interest in such imagery. For the state to insist upon the power to “protect” the inviolability of such images is to assert a property interest in the content of our minds.
One also finds such boundary line disputes in the phenomenon of philosophical, religious, or ideological allies engaging in more ferocious infighting with one another than they do with diametrically opposed groups. Marxists and lesser socialists, for instance, have often had more heated conflicts with one another than with the defenders of private capitalism. Likewise, one finds contemporary libertarians and conservatives reserving some of their most quarrelsome rhetoric for one another, rather than for their socialist opposition. The reason for this appears to be related to the fact that minor differences may blur boundary line distinctions and, in the process, cloud one’s sense of identity. Both ego and property boundaries require a continuing clarity of definition, particularly in an inconstant environment. When such definitions become unclear, as they always are when such abstract boundaries as race, religion, nationality, ideology, or politics are involved; or when your neighbor insists that the property line is two feet closer to your house than you believe it to be, conflict is likely to erupt. Nor should we be surprised to discover that, as political and social turbulence calls into question the future of existing systems, many people become eager supporters of the efforts of the state to resist such changes by the most repressive and violent means.

Boundaries of Order: Private Property as a Social System

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