TL;DR / Summary
G.K. Chesterton was an early 20th century English writer known for his clever paradoxes.
He once wrote: “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.’”
In other words, don’t be so quick to tear down things you don’t understand. That fence may have been put up for a very good reason, even if that reason is not immediately obvious. To ignore that reality risks unintended and potentially negative consequences.
Don't Tear Down That Fence!
We've all seen that old, dilapidated fence in the neighborhood. The wood is rotting, pieces are missing, and it seems to serve no real purpose. Our first instinct may be to tear it down and get rid of an eyesore. But we would be wise to heed the advice of G.K. Chesterton and first understand why the fence exists before dismantling it.
Chesterton urged us to respect fences and traditions, even - or perhaps especially - when we don't grasp their purpose. His maxim goes:
"Don't ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up."
This principle has come to be known as Chesterton's fence. And it can save us from rash decisions with unintended consequences. Let's explore three reasons why.
We Risk Unforeseen Problems
That decaying fence in the neighborhood seems totally pointless. But before tearing it down, we should investigate if it was erected for a good reason. Perhaps it demarks a property line. Or prevents people from walking into a dangerous area. If we remove things without first understanding why they exist, we risk creating new issues.
As an analogy, think of societal customs and traditions as fences. Calling them useless hindrances is arrogant when we don't fully comprehend the functions they serve. It’s easy to see external forms and knee-jerk into removing them whilst missing deeper meaning.
Ask yourself: is it possible this fence protects against threats I’m failing to anticipate? As visionary CEO Astro Teller wisely said: “Ask yourself what you could do to break this thing, even when everyone else thinks you’re crazy.” We tear things down at our peril when we believe we know better without sincerely trying to understand them first.
It Can Display Intellectual Humility
Chesterton’s fence teaches us intellectual humility. When we encounter traditions and societal structures that appear flawed or archaic, it displays wisdom to first assume we’re missing something important.
We may eventually decide the fence needs renovating. But beginning from a humble place of “I don’t fully understand this” protects us from chronological snobbery. It stops us trumpeting today’s knowledge as intrinsically superior whilst not comprehending the failures of past systems were splattered across history’s sidewalks.
Making an earnest effort to grasp why fences exist needn’t imply full agreement with their purpose. It simply indicates respect, self-awareness of intellectual limits and appreciation that most customs arise for valid reasons, as fulfilling needs. As pioneering philosopher Karl Popper wrote, "We are not students of some subject matter but students of problems. And problems may cut right across the borders of any subject matter or discipline." True wisdom knows its knowledge has limits.
It Can Spark Needed Progress
Investigating the “why” behind fences often leads to crucial revelations. Yes, we may still replace the fence with a better alternative serving its core function. But by first understanding its deeper purpose, we avoid merely erecting more barriers against progress.
This humble questioning can ignite reform by unveiling what fences protect even whilst showing where they fail to fulfil society’s developing needs. As visionary abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote, “Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.” We can only upgrade beyond current fences when comprehending what essential needs they aim to meet.
Progress arises from respectfully understanding fences before changing them. Thoughtless removal leaves people feeling threatened rather than liberated. But mindful reform means replacing fences with better alternatives still fulfilling their core protective purposes. We show maturity by building upon what came before whilst creating space for continuing growth.
The next time you encounter an apparently outdated tradition, pause and compassionately ask why it first arose before demanding its demolition. Progress stands on the shoulders of the past, not by turning backs upon it. Our shared future relies on each of us displaying humility in questioning the reasons behind the fences built by those who came before us. What fences in your life and work could do with kinder, wiser questioning today?