July 19, 2019

Do Good Fences Make Good Neighbours?

Robert Frost (a poet for the ages) in his poem, Mending Wall, said that “good fences make good neighbours”. In the pastoral context, the phrase is about paying proper care so that your livestock didn’t wander onto neighbouring farms and do damage or cause arguments as to ownership. 

Most of us these days live, metaphorically, free from stray herds and so the question ought to be re-examined under the guise of what are we fencing in; and what are we fencing out?

Each individual lot is the opposite of community, it is proprietary. The notion of property ownership is very much about drawing a square (or any other irregular shape come to think of it,) around a parcel of land and being able to say ‘this is mine, this is not yours”. 

When Frost wrote Mending Wall, his criticism of society at the time was that it was too connected. There was no reality TV, so people had to gossip about each other. As the economy made us less subsistent people had more time to create social mores and judge each other according to them – it all became too much for Frost, and all the other brilliant introverts and the fences were important to carve out a bit of relief. 

Fun fact, the sport ‘fencing’ (a tradition where masked, normally privately educated Caucasians attack one another with non-pointy swords,) takes its name from the same root as a physical ‘fence’ which means to ‘ward-off, protect, or defend’ – from the French, defense, which of course has become defence.

Off the farm and into the more recent era, the adage of the “good fence” has been used to justify the isolationist policies of nations, including trade tariffs and the shutting of borders to those legally seeking sanctuary. It seems that many of the decision-makers who shape our world and the flow of resources around it believe that ‘high fences’ make the best neighbours. 

In some metropolitan cities, a stroll around a suburban street is a showcase of walled up yards, locked doors and drawn curtains. The norm is to be in isolation. We used to venture out to work although that is rapidly changing as remote work gains traction; we used to venture out to shop, although Woolworths home delivery, Amazon and the other giant digital retailers are making that unnecessary; and we used to venture out to socialise and to find a mate, whereas now that is a matter of scrolling up and swiping right.  

There is plenty to defend. The idea of home, of safety, of peace. But what is the threat, exactly? In a meta-analysis of scientific literature by researchers of Brigham Young University, it looks like the impacts of actual and perceived social isolation could contribute to morbidity by around 30%, with some papers quoting that number as high as 60%. That puts loneliness as our biggest killer above crime, above smoking, above obesity and draws into sharp focus the interrelationship between our social, emotional and physical wellbeing. 

The physical fences might still be important for physical protection but it is worth examining the other fences we put up, the installation of which might be the biggest threat we face.

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