Human society is much about demarcating borders and boundaries as a guide and a gauge of social acceptance and stability. People are expected to accept a given set of relationships and adhere to standards assumed to have been long-established. To question these norms, let alone openly depart from them, risks disrupting fundamental relationships assumed to be fixed and essential.
But look around at what’s happening across the globe. National boundaries are under siege. Millions have left Mexico and crossed over into the United States. And arriving in Mexico at the same time are masses of people fleeing Central America. In the Middle East, refugees by the millions have crossed borders while North Africans continue to try and survive water passages to reach destinations in Europe. To many, these and other border crossings threaten national identity and unity.
Violence, too, has extended beyond traditional boundaries. Distinctions between civilian non-combatants and soldiers are eroding more than ever. Suicide bombers regularly attack marketplaces, mosques, malls and hotels – anywhere where targets of opportunity are present. Conventional armies rarely clash anymore along clearly demarcated battle fronts. Instead insurgents engage counterinsurgents and Death Squads clash with Special Op forces. And from above unmanned drones patrol the skies with missiles guided by controllers sometimes located thousands of miles away. In asymmetric warfare battle lines have disappeared; with terror tactics anyone is a target.
Gender identifications no longer display their former clarity. Most societies had, for centuries, enforced strict lines of sexual identification, imposed strong taboos against any open deviation. Here again rigid boundaries have weakened and enforcement withered. Gender choices have expanded, sexual identity has become fluid, freedom of expression widely accepted.
Marriage boundaries had always displayed flexibility, still the situation today results in far less clarity. Extra-marital relationships, for example, appear to be more common. And marriage itself, still standard practice, has become one choice of many. Couples live together for lengthy periods then marry or often don’t. Meanwhile divorce seems to have leveled off, though it remains at elevated levels.
Educational boundaries are shifting dramatically. Home schooling continues to grow. Charter schools have become far more common, attracting millions of students. “Teach for America” has recruited recent college graduates who, it is hoped, will bring less traditional methods and additional energy and enthusiasm into classrooms. National standards of competence have been introduced and entered local school systems to become the measures of performance. And finally collegiate boundaries have become less predictable now that on-line instruction is coming of age. “Campus life” will soon have broader definitions than ever before.
National boundaries have been erased as products and services move freely around the world. (American movies, for example, often produce higher box office receipts overseas than what is generated within the U.S.). The boundaries separating man and machines have become less sharp. Pacemakers and defibrillators are routinely installed in people as are hearing aids; and doctors operate from a distance thanks to robotic-assisted surgery, and soon nanotechnology will allow the insertion of miniature devices into the body capable of cruising through our bloodstream.
In politics the boundary between facts and fiction, long problematical, has become blurred as never before. In science, at least as discussed in the public arena, the boundary between accepted theories and unfounded assertions has been crumbling of late.
If the fate of Humpty Dumpty is any guide, boundaries once breached are unlikely to be restored. The choice then becomes one of either pulling back some then making a stand, or coming to terms with current realities and establishing new, more flexible configurations.