Good fences make good neighbours

October 28, 2006

“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 neighbours’”

Robert Frost Mending Wall

I was reminded of one of my favourite Robert Frost Poems this evening when I read a report about freedom of speech on the web. Amnesty International have just started a campaign to stand up for freedom of expression on the the internet. All this in advance of the Internet Governance Forum meeting in Athens next week. Its one of those interesting dillemas that we face in the modern age. I agree with the cases Amnesty lists, and have previously expressed anger at the way Google have acted to support Chinese censorship. At the same time, bad things also happen. Its another illustration of that key human issue of boundaries and where to draw them. On information I think I come down on the side of total freedom, both morally and practically. society can then draw the lines by individuals choosing what they pay attention to.

However other cases can be more difficult. When you work (as I do in part) in the field of anti-terrorism then you learn, against the instincts of your revolutionary youth that you probably have to arrest a few hundred people for every individual you can actually prosecute. It’s a way of changing the landscape, of disrupting potential action. Of course when you accept that, then trust is key as the said license seems always to be taken to excess. Politicians don’t like to admit to the necessity either, so they dissemble when the issue needs to be openly discussed. It is not called asymmetric warfare for nothing and the methods of counter terrorism will inevitably trespass on a utopian view of liberty. The boundary between legitimate interrogation and torture has taxed the President and Vice President of the USA recently. I have no hesitation in in opposing torture, as I oppose capital punishment not so much because it might not under extreme circumstances be justified, but because it dehumanises society. To my mind this is a variation of the old principle of the Just War which was and remains a complex and difficult debate; taking an extreme position is in effect a way of avoiding having to deal with the task of walking the line.

Walls have always fascinated me. They can enable and create sense-making as well as disabling communication, imagination and invention. Berlin, with the wall that symbolised the Iron Curtain a more exciting place than it is now, but then I could visit in the 70’s I did not have to live there. Some of the most revolutionary of Verdi’s opera was achieved by working around censorship.

Boundaries need to be drawn, but they cannot be drawn for us. Boundaries are sense-making devices and do not need to be confining boxes. Maybe like Robert Frost’s neighbours we need to find ways to walk the wall together ….

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