G.K. Chesterton is best known for his fence aphorism, that you don’t take down a fence until you know why someone put it up. Split rail or pickets aside, this was a test of politics. The liberal will see a fence in his way and rip it down without further thought because it blocks his path. The conservative, on the other hand, will exercise caution, waiting to learn the fence’s purpose for being there before tearing it down.
But Chesterton went a little deeper than just the fence.
His definition of tradition as “the democracy of the dead” has always impressed me as a formidable truth. We are dwarfs on giants’ shoulders; but this includes not just the geniuses who have preceded us and paved the way for our own minor discoveries, but also the myriads of ordinary, anonymous people who have created, step by step, with occasional strokes of genius and many more trials and errors, the civilization we enjoy today.
Behind every single thing, habit or institution of our life there are centuries of experiments, attempts, failures and success.
Humans have been around for a while now, and we’ve developed traditions, norms, rules and, obviously, laws. Each came about for a reason. Some reasons are good and some not so good. Some made sense at the time, but changes in society have vitiated the reasons and the time has come to adapt. Others reflect truisms about our state of being, and persist even if we don’t think they should.
The point isn’t that traditions are immutable and society should never abandon a norm that’s outlived is usefulness, or that no longer meets our needs and beliefs. The point is that human experience voted to establish a tradition, a norm, and like it or not, there was a reason why that happened.
At this point in time, many are revisiting history in light of contemporary shifts in mores and beliefs. The certainty that today’s feelings are unquestionably more right, better, more fair, than any that came before guides the young to inflexibly demand that we tear down the fence. They refuse to consider the “democracy of the dead,” as they’re just rotting corpses of old guys who were awful anyway. Dead people cannot, by definition, be woke.
What they do not do is consider how society came to be the way it is, the trials and errors, the successes and failures, the brilliance of those who came before us. It’s not that society cannot, or should not, change. It constantly evolves. But why are we where we are? How did we get here? Why did the dead “vote” as they did, and what hubris possesses you to believe that every radical thought that pops into your head is better than the accumulation of thousands of years of human experience?
Maybe the fence should come down, or at least parts of it, but until you are willing to learn, to understand, why the fence is there, shrieking for its demise may be a disastrous mistake. The key to all this is to approach the fence honestly and openly, rather than fabricating rationalizations that justify your tearing it down because that’s what you truly believe should be done.
The dead have spoken. It’s up to the living to listen. Maybe they’ll tell us that it’s time to tear down that fence. Maybe we’ll learn why the fence should remain as it is.