Why We Need Limits
With the triumph of Trump, Americans have spoken in favor of borders—not just the physical borders that automatically come to mind (the ones Trump has asserted he will protect by building a wall), but also the social and cultural borders our country has increasingly abandoned. In a recent article for Spiked, Frank Furedi argues our society has abandoned borders and limits of all sorts:
Western society’s estrangement from borders is not a progressive step forward – rather it expresses a crisis of nerve in relation to holding the line. Western society has embraced the evasive tactic of non-judgmentalism. Now it must relearn the value of making distinctions. It needs to overcome its reluctance to make judgments of value, and stop being afraid to hold the line.
This idea that our society is suffering a “crisis of nerve” in relation to holding firm reminded me immediately of an article Molly Worthen just wrote for the New York Times, in which she critiques the common expression “I feel like”: these words are symptomatic of a time, she argues, in which timidity of will prevents the speaker from making an outright truth claim. Rather than saying “I think” or “I believe”—in essence, holding or drawing a line—we fall back on the easy abstractness of “I feel like.” As a result, our public discourse has grown soft, edgeless, limitless. When emotion dominates our conversations, it is impossible to give any coherent rebuttal. We can say pretty much anything without getting in trouble. You can claim to be a seven-year-old Asian female—regardless of your age, race, or gender. (Indeed, in the linked video, a girl tells the man making the aforementioned argument, “I feel like that’s not my place, as another human, to say someone is wrong, or to draw lines or boundaries.”)
This has maddened many voters, who see this ridiculous, widespread political correctness as a plague enveloping all coherent or cogent conversation. Many of these frustrated people have flocked to Trump.
Yet ironically, despite the fact that he’s the champion of working class people frustrated with post-border politics and language, Trump is a candidate singularly suited to this post-border world. Because the appearance of genuineness—rather than the objective reliability of a truth claim—is heralded as the standard for veracity and dependability, Trump’s been able to garner a considerable following via the mode of his mannerisms alone. As David Butterfield put it in an excellent piece for Standpoint magazine, “the alarming rise of Donald Trump is intimately linked with his direct, no-nonsense talk; the travesty is that his mode of speech seems to weigh heavier with the electorate than what he actually says. Has the natural desire for clarity combined with the misguided fetish for brevity spawned an attitude that privileges blunt and unfiltered nonsense over multifaceted and nuanced commonsense?”
Social media is complicit in this, at least to some degree. Political messages have been significantly influenced by the medium by which they’re promoted and disseminated. Andrew Sullivan argued in a piece for New York magazine that much of the political upheaval we’ve seen throughout this presidential election thus far has been a result of the democratization of media brought about by the internet—a democratization that’s muddied the distinction between politics and entertainment, along with fostering the triumph of “feeling, emotion, and narcissism” over “reason, empiricism, and public-spiritedness.”
This is one of the greatest ironies of Trump’s success: the very post-border world (especially in media and culture) that he’s decrying is the very one that’s assisted him to fame and success.
But Trump has rightly put his finger on an angry sore bothering the American public, one that must be tended to lest it continue to fester: namely, the frustration with post-border society and its excesses. As Robert Nisbet wrote in The Quest for Community, if we don’t have a sense of belonging—if we’re divorced from any sort of situatedness—we fall prey to “deeply disquieting states of nostalgia and vague longing. These may transform themselves into innumerable emotions ranging from simple discontent to bitter alienation.”
This means that we need a community, a sense of belonging and distinction within a group of people, but it also means that we need a sense of right and wrong—a sense of limits and objectivity in our culture, discourse, religion, and politics. The breakdown of family and community, church and state—the creation of our post-border society—has not led to greater freedom. Instead, it’s led to a sort of slavery: to the federal government and its powers, to the self and its lusts, to the emotion and its excesses. A world without limits of virtue or courtesy is singularly suited to the bombast and bullying of a politician like Trump (as well as to the dreamy promises of a socialist like Bernie Sanders).
It’s difficult to determine how we can stem the flow of outrage, frustration, and bitterness now spilling forth in our political process—but it will be impossible to do so without recognizing the role that limits must play in healing our society, and our politics. Voters may be wrong in choosing Trump as their candidate—but they’re not wrong in believing that we need borders, limits, and distinctions in our society once more.