2010-11-23

Tradition

It is the method by which we perpetuate culture, passing on beliefs, ideas, or customs from one generation to the next. Traditions form the basis of cultural identity, the mortar with which a family, a city, a country builds its personality. They are often unassailable bastions at the core of history for a people.

And that's why they're dangerous.

Traditions are often immune to challenge, merely by virtue of being "traditions": doing something "because that's the way we've always done it", whether it's who carves the turkey, how we set up the Christmas decorations, or how we venerate people in the past. And while culture is often an excuse, "the past" is really the key point here, because tradition looks only to the past and only with longing in its eyes.

The hidden assumption in tradition is this: the way things were done before is the best way and will always be the best way going forward. That assumption is quite often wrong. If a behavior is, in fact, the best method, then it should be able to stand on its own without being labeled "traditional"; if it is not, then no amount of reverence for history should prevent the best choice from being made. "Tradition" implies that a bunch of desert nomads from 2000 years ago could know what's best for people living in hundred-story high rises. It implies that a handful of rich white men from a few hundred years ago knew what was best for computer gamers and gun owners today. It argues that, because something was done in a specific way at some point in the past, that way is now a priori the best way and should never change.

As Toscanini said, "Tradition is just the last bad performance."

There are reasons to value cultural, historical or social traditions in the context of history, such as teaching traditional art forms, languages, or even rites. But those traditions should never be divorced from the time period in which they arose or their own cultural histories: why things were done a certain way, what the justification was, the effects of that tradition on future history, etc. Traditions should be valued as artifacts in the same way we value physical artifacts: as curiosities and points of reference, not as relevant for today's world. We can appreciate the role of ceremonial dance and religion in the political and social framework of pre-modern cultures without feeling the need to revere them, the same way we can appreciate an old flint knife without feeling the need to give up stainless steel or carbonite.

History shouldn't be ignored, but neither should it be placed on a pedestal and worshipped. Good practice and good information can stand on its own without arbitrary enforcement: if something is useful, it is useful whether it is old or new. We study Aristotle, Euclid, Newton and Freud not because of tradition but because of the inherent value of their statements and ideas, even if we've proven them "wrong" (or at least restrictive) in the intervening years: they are stepping stones along the path to modern logic, mathematics, physics and psychology. Just as we can appreciate Bach and Mozart without limiting ourselves to Baroque music and abandoning the Romantic period, we can appreciate the trappings of history without feeling the need to continue them and, instead, improve or even abandon them as need arises.

As we approach a holiday season that is often draped in traditions, don't be afraid to abandon them. If you find yourself sad or depressed, it may be because you're trying to cling to an outmoded idea of "should" that no longer fits - a tradition that is no longer useful. Embrace whatever celebrations or routines that you find useful, even if they aren't "traditional": go out instead of eating in, invite close friends to dinner instead of family, skip the presents and donate to charity or spend time at a soup kitchen - whatever it is that you feel is a better fit for you and your life today, not what you've been taught "should" be done.

Tradition looks to the past, but, while we must remember what has come before so as not to repeat the same mistakes, the past is not a model by which we can live. Progress exists only in the future, and with it comes the most powerful force we know - the thing that can forever destroy the historical, repetitive, traditional grievances of life:

Hope.

2 comments:

pckthooks133 said...

As I read this post, I thought, "Is he saying that Christ's teachings have worn out their usefulness?" Of course, you aren't saying that. You took great care to specifically avoid saying that. What I do think you would say, and if I'm wrong please correct me, is that Christ's teachings aren't just his anymore. Lessons of generosity and hospitality and kinship are available through several philosophies, and while the modern-day Church may still profess them, it may no longer be the best vehicle to express or enact them in our daily lives.

Would you more or less agree with that?

Austin said...

You place me in a slightly difficult position by conflating several ideas, so pardon me if I have to parse them out a bit.

The fundamental principles of cooperation, altruism, and the common good are not exclusive to what you label "Christ's teachings"; in fact, most of what is present in the Christian mythos actually predates his time period by hundreds if not thousands of years. Cooperation is intrinsic to human civilization and has been a driving force for as long as we've been tribal - which goes back to even our pre-homo sapiens ancestors. In a sense, "Christ's teachings aren't just his anymore" is misleading; they were co-opted into "his teachings" rather than originating with "him", and exist with or without the Christian myth. It'd be like me claiming that "gravity is Newton's teaching" simply because he presented one view of it; the recognition of gravity existed before Newton's country was even founded, much less before he was born.

Those princples are not "traditions" in themselves; they're psychosocial traits expressed from, fundamentally, genetic characteristics. People who aren't altruistic are abnormal, not the other way around, so it's not as if such behavior is a cultural artifact. There are cultural modifiers to said behavior, and these do in fact change over time: look at how minorities are treated today versus even 40 years ago. The process is far from complete, but it is changing. So, yes, some of how the behavior is expressed is dependent upon tradition (some of which comes from religious sources), and luckily those traditions are being overruled.

I would certainly agree that the Christian myth - as most myths - is a cultural artifact that no longer holds relevance. Religion in general was useful as a tool for the formation of citystates as well as for manipulating uneducated or uninformed populations for their own benefit; it formalized concepts such as planting and harvesting cycles as well as ceding to authority. I would hope that, in this age, we were beyond such childish manipulation.

I could be further blunt and point out that modern-day Christian behavior hardly reflect these philosophies of hospitality, kinship, and generosity: the church as it stands today is world-reknowned for being bigoted, isolated, and power-hungry, even to the point of ignoring its repeated abuse of its own supplicants far beyond what is considered acceptable by any modern society. If there were only one example of a tradition or traditional structure that was well past its usefulness, the Vatican would be that example, but one could quite easily substitute in most formalized religions - even "modern" ones like Scientology - and still be as disparaging.