Chesterton’s Fence

Not sure why (I think it’s the venom/intolerance around the RFRA), but I was thinking of when JFK was asked why he wasn’t for changing something, he misquoted the parable of Chesterton’s Fence:

"Before you tear a fence down, you should ask why it was built in the first place."

The actual deeper quote from C.K. Chesterton’s 1929 work "The Drift from Domesticity”, goes like this:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road.
The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away."
To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

Paraphrasing from many analyses of this quote, the point is there are reformers out there, that run around assuming their fathers were all fools, and that the old laws and constructs serve no purpose — but if that’s true, then folly appears to be a hereditary disease.

The gate or fence did not grow there: it was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether it was reasonable or not.

So it might well be, that something was created for bad purposes (or have become them), or that it no longer serves a purpose. But nobody has any business to destroy ANYTHING until they first understand how it arose, what purposes it was supposed to serve. And those that wish to destroy or change things without understanding why others created, only prove they’re arrogant, lack insight or are not informed enough to know by what sense it was created. (If you assume everything you don’t understand is senseless, it only shows that you are lacking in sense.)

Thus the only time you should allow destruction or change, is when the proponents of that change, can first explain why the other side created it, and how its destruction will improve things (and not lead to the problem that created it in the first place). If they can’t do that, without demonizing or vilifying the other side, then they probably aren’t to be trusted with the responsibilities of destruction.

Put very simply:

"Don’t destroy/change that which you don’t understand. And don’t trust anyone that advocates that position.”

If we had more of this prudence, we’d have far less of the problems and polarization that we have in the world today.


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