Patching Cracks

 

November 23, 2022



Joking with a friend recently, I commented that the Montana state tree is, in fact, a fence post. Though the Ponderosa Pine is the actual state tree, the prairie boasts far more fence posts than trees any day. When I first came to the area, the thousands of miles of fencing often made me wonder about their purpose. I know fences are there to divide property and keep animals/people in or out. Still, there are many pieces of land surrounded by barbed wire that don’t seem to need it. Though it is not my place to do so, it would be easy to consider tearing down all that fencing based on the simple fact that I don’t know why it is there. The philosopher/theologian GK Chesterton, while writing on the topic of “second order thinking” uses fences as an illustration of the concept. He explains that modern reformers often look at a fence that has stood for years and decide to tear it down because they do not know why it is there. Chesterton suggests that it is foolish to tear down a fence if you don’t know why it was put up in the first place. The idea is simple: we might assume that something that was added to our world/community/culture before we were born serves no purpose or has grown outdated simply because we don’t see its purpose or value. This doesn’t mean it lacks one.


A terrific example of “Chesterton’s Fence” in history took place under Stalin’s reign in the Soviet Union. Stalin instituted reforms in marriage laws, which he considered to be outdated and without purpose. Those changes made it easier to dissolve marriages, with no further financial or moral obligations afterward. This is the first instance of “no fault divorce” in modern history. The result was a tidal wave of divorces, where men simply walked away from their pregnant wives to escape the impending personal and financial obligations associated with parenting. In addition to the disaster of poverty inflicted on millions of women and children, the social fabric was damaged as a result of the skyrocketing divorce rates. The fence of “traditional marriage and family” that Stalin tore down served an important role. It ensured the financial security of women who became pregnant, provided for the parentage of families, and bolstered the social order. Stalin did not see the purpose of the fence, therefore he did not see the larger impact of tearing down the fence. Ultimately, the fence had to be rebuilt and early no fault divorce reforms in the Soviet Union were undone.

Chesterton argues that before you make a decision to change anything instituted by others before you, it is vital that you understand the reason it was put into place to start with. Another way to approach the idea to ask “second order” questions. Everyone asks themselves what the consequence of a decision will be. However, it is less common to ask what the consequence of the consequences of the decision. In Stalin’s case, he saw that people would be freed from being tied down to families. He never considered what the impact of that consequence would be in terms of impact on those involved.

In terms of our every day lives, we can apply this idea in all manner of places. The most obvious one is the ease or lack of thought we put toward walking away from long held institutions and norms. It is easy to walk away from traditions or institutions. It takes less effort to sleep in than it does to drag your family to church. It is easier to eat in front of the TV than to sit around the table as a family for a meal. These fences are easy ones to allow to fall into neglect. However, the longer term impact of those decisions is not as obvious. Many of the traditional fences in our lives were built over hundreds, even thousands of years. They were built for a reason. It is wise to maintain them until we understand their purpose and the long term impact of their removal.

 
 

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