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Rethinking the walls that divide us

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail on July 28, 2017 as part of a series on Walls, Bridges and Homes – a response to the emerging global appetite for a progressive narrative around inclusion and immigration. The series frames the thematic focus of 6 Degrees Citizen Space (Sept. 25-27), presented by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.

As a young man I spent time in Belfast studying its notorious walls. The Northern Irish city, then the epicentre of a nasty and protracted civil disturbance, had erected some 18 barriers between warring Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods. Called “peace walls,” these mostly steel or brick divides crossed roads, parks, housing estates, and even backyards.

What astonished me was how they would often end abruptly, allowing combatants to simply walk around them. Certain of the barriers also had gates for daytime passage. Equally confounding was the fact that the working-class enclaves that the walls kept apart were almost identical in appearance, not least when it came to their residents. Like their Orwellian name, the walls seemed closer to bitter visual jokes, mocking the tyranny of small differences.

And yet, Belfast residents, frayed by daily violence ranging from bombs in pubs to snipers in windows, appreciated these imperfect efforts at keeping nearly indistinguishable neighbours from harming each other. They slept a little better at night and shopped a little easier by day.

So much so, once the Troubles wound down in the late 1990s, no attempt was made to bring the barriers down. Quite the opposite: When I visited the city recently, the number of peace walls stood at 48, albeit some of them quite small. People no longer needed the physical protection, but still did want the psychological security of visible divides.

Walls, I learned in Belfast, can be material or metaphor. Often, they are both.

In 2017, both varieties of walls are going up at a dismaying rate, and not just within cities or states that are already riven internally. The construction spree is global, and may be undermining the only political system with any real commitment to openness, accommodation and inclusion. That would be liberal democracy, and of late it has had its fair share of boundary disputes and unexpected encroachments.

Emerging not a moment too soon are various groups dedicated to identifying and critiquing barriers. Their specialty is the invisible kinds, the ones built into the foundations of political and economic structures, and sometimes cemented into the dank basement of the human psyche. That the best defenders of liberal democracy may also be among its harshest critics is yet another unfolding irony of our unsettled age.

Setbacks to freedom

In some respects, 2016 was the year of the material wall. European nations scrambled to put those barriers back up, to block refugees fleeing violence and civil war in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and other troubled places. Saudi Arabia completed a chain-link fence with Iraq to insulate itself from the Islamic State; India targeted a completion date of 2019 for a 4,000-kilometre-long cordon to stymie illegal crossings from Bangladesh. A candidate for American president campaigned on extending one actual wall, while clearly selling an aggressive vision of multiple metaphorical ones.

But the trend has actually been years in the making. Even as the Berlin Wall was dismantled in 1990, another 16 large-scale fence-barriers remained standing along national borders. By 2015, some 65 countries, ranging from Israel to Morocco to Hungary to Spain, had either built, or were busy building, them – nearly a third of the world’s nations.

Only intermittently effective at stopping unwanted migrations or, for that matter, terrorists, these walls are as much show as security. They serve as photo-op demonstrations of official resolve and unresolved anxieties alike. Worse, this latest spate of construction gives licence – as does now-U.S. President Donald Trump – to the rightness of those higher and uglier metaphorical barriers, the ones aimed at drawing a line between Us and Other, between who is inside and who is out.

Also making a comeback in recent years have been the forces of populism and nativism (even as they have been beaten back of late in the Netherlands and France). That is no coincidence. These ideologies supply the justifications for nationalist identities crafted of steel and cement, surveillance cameras and razor-wire. They make the crude case for exclusion.

If all this talk of populist bombast and nativist rhetoric, hastily erected barricades and concertina wire seem out of a time warp, there is a reason. Nativism and populism last held such global sway on the eve of the Second World War. By 1939, only a handful of countries on the planet were functioning democracies. Communism, fascism, dictatorship, and late-stages colonial rule were the dominant political systems of the day. Had Adolf Hitler prevailed, there would have been even fewer democracies left standing.

He didn’t, and the remainder of the century was mostly a happy news story. By the turn of the millennium, more than 120 countries were practising a variation on democracy. More nations than ever before were adhering to the rule of law, including the protection of individual and collective rights. They were, in that sense, open to being open, albeit with lots of caveats about extenuating internal circumstances.

But according to Freedom House, the NGO that researches political freedoms and human rights, we are now in a protracted backslide of those same liberties, with 2016 marking the 11th consecutive year of setbacks in global freedoms. An essay accompanying the Washington-based organization’s latest report begins with this forceful sentence: “In 2016 populist and nationalist political forces made astonishing gains in democratic states, while authoritarian powers engaged in brazen acts of aggression, and grave atrocities went unanswered in war zones across two continents.”

This apparent loss of confidence in liberal democracy is particularly bad news for immigrants, both those dwelling within such democracies and those seeking to escape authoritarian states. They are being recast as security risks and fifth-columnists, problems that go away by keeping doors judiciously closed. Populism has a lurid vocabulary for demonizing the most vulnerable. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has called migrants “poison.” Candidate Trump spoke of Mexican “rapists and criminals.”

Likewise, although free nations are built upon principles of fairness and inclusion, such concepts are suddenly being declared soft, mere values rather than rights. Their centrality in bolstering a democracy, as well as in ensuring its long-term prosperity, are easily drowned out by the rhetoric of, in effect, those walls: the necessary material, the inevitable metaphor.

Dismantling dominance

A handful of political leaders recognize this, and are mounting counterarguments. “Diversity is our strength,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted after the Trump administration’s first attempt at a travel ban on Muslims. During his successful run for the French presidency, Emmanuel Macron thanked German Chancellor Angela Merkel for saving “our collective dignity” with her open-door refugee policy.

But the most incisive thinking about walls may be emerging from community-based activism. Movements clustering around Indigenous reconciliation and restitution, anti-racism, and LGBTQ rights – to name just the most prominent – are certainly asking tough, uncomfortable questions about the way things are.

No surprise, these groups, mostly associated with the political left, are especially cogent at pointing out the walls protecting careful constructions of dominance. They identify privilege based on race and prejudice; they query which history is being told, and who is doing the telling; they insist colonialism is alive and well in heads and hearts, along with colonial policies and practices.

For people on the outside of power, social, economic and political barriers aren’t invisible, and never have been. The walls have been right before their eyes for as long as they, or their ancestors, can remember. For those on the inside, meanwhile, such critiques can sound strident and totalizing, a threat to supposedly communal values, even to a way of life. They don’t see those structural barriers – or they just don’t care.

They also counterpunch. Proud Boys, believing their Canada to be under siege, attack an Indigenous demonstration in Halifax over the statue of Cornwallis. In a tweet, President Trump cites the “medical costs and disruption that transgender [sic] in the military would entail” as one reason to reinstitute the ban against their serving openly in the U.S. armed forces. He also mentions unspecified threats to “cohesion.”

The President is right about the disruption, if nothing else. Of late, noisy, public challenges have been garnering most of the attention. Black Lives Matter disrupts the 2016 Pride parade to address “anti-blackness” within the Pride Toronto organization. A ceremonial teepee is erected on Parliament Hill during Canada 150 celebrations as a symbol of unresolved grievances.

Such high-profile disruptions certainly garner reactions, often from those with actual power. Equally important, however, are the quieter provocations and challenges being framed by these groups about what, in effect, we need to talk about if we really want to talk about inclusion. Respect for difference, fairness, equality, restitution are all ultimately measures of how individuals negotiate each other as partners in the basic enterprise of living together. They are tools for honouring the people on either side of you – not, curiously, something humans are very good at.

The truest conversions are always the self-willed, and, thanks in part to the forceful thinking of these various groups, individuals of good will are slowly, steadily wanting to re-examine a list of assumptions and make right a list of wrongs. Our parents didn’t teach us particularly well about some things. Nor did our history books. We sure don’t always see the walls we live behind, and help reinforce.

This is a profound project, and it is unfolding in messy real time. For sure, there is a lot of new thinking for a lot of us to absorb. But I can’t imagine a more necessary or essential conversation. Necessary for its own sake, and essential for the health of liberal democracies, which count on engagement and introspection from their citizens to thrive.

The principal challenge for now may be to come up with a working definition of real inclusion, one that is widely agreed upon, and that can become shared ground worth defending. That, too, probably can’t happen easily or comfortably. We’re still identifying the correct terms and appropriate players to do the work. This conversation is just beginning.