When people change from being non-engaged politically to becoming activists, the first thing they do hinders everything they try to accomplish afterwards. They rally like-minded people to their cause and build a wall. This renders their activism less effective and obstructs the exercise of statecraft.
Donald Trump is fond of saying, if you don’t have a border, you don’t have a country. Marriage counselors have been saying something like it for years: if you don’t maintain boundaries, then you don’t have a family, a marriage, or even a healthy sense of self. Boundaries define who is a member of a group and who is an outsider. Boundaries contain; they direct the members within towards each other, to care for and connect with them before others. Boundaries notify you when there’s incursions from those outside, those whom you cannot trust.
Boundaries are one thing; walls are another. Walls are barriers. They prevent fresh ideas from coming inside and imprison the participants in an echo chamber of stale solutions and ever more isolated notions.
When I work with clients, I’m always mindful of boundaries. I have a private place to talk; I assure them of confidentiality. I also try to conduct myself in a way that respects their personal boundaries and make it safe for them to be with me. When they know that I will respect they’re boundaries, the walls come down and they tell me things they tell no one else. Boundaries are my business. They’re the tools of my trade. Walls are a different matter. I use boundaries; walls I tear down.
I’m always getting people in my office, individually talking to me about things that they should be talking about with their spouse. They would bring it up, but they’re too ashamed, or they don’t want to make her mad, or it’s not safe, or they don’t want to see him worry, or they just have to work out what they’re going to say before they have that conversation. They have a good reason to talk with me first; but, whatever the reason, a wall has been built between the partners. If they’re going to stay together, it’s got to come down.
In the civic arena, boundaries are formed all over. Churches, schools, workplaces and communities adopt implicit codes of conduct and common beliefs and goals that define membership. They value the people within the border more than the people outside. When people run afoul of these social norms, the walls come up. If they’re not formally excommunicated or cast out, they feel like a freak, a misfit, a square peg in a round hole.
A gay man, raised by a conservative family, in an Evangelical church, in a small town in Oklahoma, might feel this way. If he’s not bullied, humiliated, or rejected, he’s likely to feel mighty uncomfortable. If he’s able to, he’ll leave the family, abandon the church, and move to some place like Greenwich Village. There he can walk down the street holding hands with his boyfriend and become a gay rights activist.
Here’s the problem, though. At the very moment when he is marching, bare chested, in a Gay Pride parade on Broadway, to his his home town in Oklahoma, he is politically non-engaged. He’s given up on Oklahoma and abandoned the gay people who stayed there. His family can think he’s gone off the deep end. The people in his church can go on saying gay people are not like us. His former high school classmates are free to call him a fag or a fairy without ever getting challenged. He’s easy to dismiss because he’ll never come into their store and buy a new set of tires. They don’t have to know that he is as normal as them.
Meanwhile, the longer he spends in Greenwich Village, the more out of touch with Oklahoma he becomes. In his mind, the Okies are still stuck in the past where he left them. They become stereotypical rustics instead of the multidimensional people he grew up with. To him and his friends, gay rights are the most important things on the political agenda. To the folks in Oklahoma it’s way down the list, below farm policy. He can’t understand why they would vote to deprive him of his rights and they can’t understand how he could forget where he came from and vote against the things that are important to them. They will never understand each other because, hunkered down behind their walls, they never have to.
There’s always going to be boundaries. Oklahoma is going to be different from Greenwich Village. No one wants them to be the same. But there doesn’t have to be walls. Boundaries make things distinctive. Walls prevent visiting.
If there were a million boundaries crisscrossing our country, dividing gay from straight, gun activists from gun reformers, right-to-life from reproductive choice, and many others, in such a way that you might belong to one group on one issue, and a different group on another, that would be one thing. But, there seems to be just one big wall and darn few gay Republicans. When there are those who cross over, they tend to regard one issue more seriously than another; which, I guess, permits them entry into the enemy camp. They keep a low profile when it comes to the issue on which they disagree. No one wants to be called a RINO or a blue dog Democrat and no one completely trusts them.
If there was more crossover, which is possible with a boundary, but not with a wall. Then those who straddled the two could be very persuasive. A Gay man who stays in his church, for example, and talks Gay rights in churchy language is going to be a much more effective activist than one who goes off to Greenwich Village and talks only to those who think like him. Similarly, if the church to could see its way to being more inclusive, it could carry its message into Greenwich Village in such a way that people could hear it. But, that seldom happens. People don’t feel safe being in a minority. They would rather hide behind walls.
Respect the boundaries, but tear down this wall.
Read part I, A Marriage Counselor Takes on Politics
Part II, The Perverse Power of the Non-Engaged
Part IV, Intolerant of the Intolerant, Outraged by the Outrageous
Part V, If You Want People to Listen to You, Stop Talking