Saturday, 25 May 2013

Building Walls

Robert Frost
(March 26, 1874 – January 29, 1963
Just been helping a neighbour repair a larch-lap fence between our gardens which the winds a few days ago brought down. It made me think of the poem "Mending Walls" by Robert Frost, about how we build walls between us and how acts of unspeakable brutality such as we saw in Woolwich, London last Wednesday are both caused by those walls and act to reinforce and 'mend' them.

Mending Walls


Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Robert Frost
What we saw in Woolwich was the result of alienation and disengagement; the result of generations of wall-building between the white and black communities in Britain. In the 1960s, dissafected youths found an outlet in gangs of 'Mods' and 'Rockers' or, with some of us, in extremist politics of the various brands of ultra-left 'Marxist' groups like the Stalinists, Leninists, Trotskyites and Maoists. In the 1930 it had been the Communists and the Fascists, in the 1950's the Teddyboys and the Beatniks.

In Northern Ireland throughout most of the second half of the twentieth century, it had been Nationalism and 'the armed struggle' or Loyalism and Protestant Supremacy. We happily fragmented into Beatles fans, Rolling Stones fans, Bob Dylan fans, Folk, Blues, R&B, Jazz. You name it we could form an exclusive little group around it. Sometimes these were political; sometimes cultural.

Sometimes they ended up with people being killed because we forgot that, despite whatever group we identify with, the group to which we all belong is the Human group.

Human beings form groups. It's what we do. If we hadn't evolved that basic behaviour on the plains of East Africa a few million years ago, very probably before we were even humans, we wouldn't have survived. As lone individuals we would have been leopard food, scraping a living looking for roots and grubs and scavenging scraps from hyena and lion kills - if we were lucky and the vultures didn't beat us to them.

We are motivated to affiliate with like-minded people. We need to belong. (See Whatever Possesses Religious People.) Our affiliative needs come just above our basic needs for shelter, food, safety and security in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, cutting across the need for esteem and and friendship.
Human beings have always functioned in groups. The most basic human group is the family, centered around the pairing of a male and female for the purpose of procreation and the raising of children. This pairing forms the nuclear family, which soon becomes linked to other pairs through a network of relationships between siblings through several generations, thus creating an extended family. This group is held together by a strong bond of cohesion referred to as kinship. While kinship is often thought of in relation to blood ties, what is more important is the common sense of identity by which all the individuals are bonded to the group. This sense of identity causes the individual's self-conception to be inseparable from the group. It is a bonding at an emotional and psychological level which is a powerful motivation usually enduring throughout the individual's life. His or her sense of well-being is intimately related to the integrity and status of the group. Betrayal of the group by an individual member is a most unpardonable sin, involving deep feelings of guilt, and the most severe punishments.

Kinship is, therefore, the most powerful of cohesive forces binding the human group together. It has played an essential role throughout human history in enabling human beings to function and, indeed, to survive. This is as true in the twentieth century as it was in prehistorical times. But it is not the only type of group cohesion. It exists in conjunction with other cohesive forms, and some groups are held together without kinship. It is important to realize, however, that groups which lack the kinship bond will not cohere as well, nor are they as likely to endure.

Behavioral expectations within the group are defined by the culture; norms and roles are established over time, usually in response to needs, and challenges of the environment. Tradition and practice strengthen these expectations, religion sanctifies them, and law codifies them. Institutions develop to enforce them. These are all necessary functional responses to the need for the group to operate efficiently. Over time, however, circumstances will change so that the religious, legal, and institutional responses may no longer be functional. It becomes necessary then for the behavioral expectations to be modified, and new emphases be placed in response to the changing situation. This always creates a friction with old expectations and traditional institutions. Much of the conflict in human history revolves about this process of change. In any case, the religion, the law, and the institutions which develop, themselves become cohesive forces holding the group together, and even make it possible for types of groups to form which lack the kinship bond.

An interesting exercise is to write down all the groups you identify as belonging to. One group you will belong to is those who read blogs such as this one. If you are reading this one because you follow me as an Atheist and/or a Humanist, you will also belong to those groups (groups don't need to be formal). If you're reading this because you disagree with me you will probably be a member of a religious group. If you're the latter, although you belong to the group of people who are religious, there are probably stronger walls between you and members of other religious groups than there are between you and me, even though you are also members of the same group.

And of course, we are both almost certainly members of the same English-speaking group, unless you are reading a translation of this blog.

Walls are part of the means by which we define ourselves and our group. Without walls, the other group's cows might stray over and eat our apples.

We maintain these walls by all sorts of means, and we build them from both sides. We build walls to keep the others in and the others build walls to keep us out; and we all end up inside our own bastions convinced those outside are trying to get in.

And we build walls when none are needed and we maintain those which are no longer required. Just like Robert Frost's primitive neighbour, we need the walls to stop our apples trees wandering over and eating his pine cones, but "good fences make good neighbours!".

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

Reluctance; Robert Frost
Frost recognises the primitive, stupidity of this futile exercise and sees how his neighbour is only doing it because his father did and he is proud of his father's 'wisdom' which he has inherited without "looking beneath it". In other words, the wall is often there for cultural tradition and for no other purpose. How much of the walls we build because of religion are built because we are proud of our father's 'wisdom', and not because they are necessary?

In fact, a better question is, if not for religion and because of the religion we inherited from our fathers why are any of these walls there? And how much are we responsible for the walls we built around the alienated black and Asian kids of today who are looking to Islam, the 'subversive' religion of the West, just as in times gone by, Leninism, Trotskyism and Maoism were the subversive political philosophies of the West, for an outlet and an identity so they can be somebody and have some control over their own destiny?

Don't ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.

Robert Frost
As Robert Frost observed, this is artificial. There is nothing natural about man-made walls. "Something there is that doesn't love a wall That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, And spills the upper boulders in the sun, And makes gaps even two can pass abreast".

How hard we work to build up those walls that nothing wants, that serve no purpose other than to honour our dead ancestors and which serve only to spread division, distrust, death and destruction amongst us, as we saw in Woolwich on Wednesday and as we have seen so often in so many places throughout human history.

"But good fences make good neighbours!"





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