19 May 2006

The relevance of tradition



The relevance of tradition.

Traditions can range through a wide scope of human activities. A group of friends can establish their own peculiar traditions as well as a group of societies can have their own common traditions.

Traditions can come and go in a space of a few years or they can linger on for centuries with no end in sight. For example, a group of friends can start a tradition of going out for dinner to a particular restaurant when a specific member of their group has their birthday. More than a dozen nations celebrate a religious event which represents an important milestone in their religion; Easter is such an event, for example.

So, what are traditions? Why are they important? In which aspects of human activities are traditions important? And are traditions relevant?

At face value, a tradition is a sort of behaviour which a group of people get involve in on a regular basis. The behaviour, for all intents and purposes, is predefined and in a way the out come is predetermined. For example, during someone’s birthday we know what to expect. When we were children, we expected to have a party, be given presents and of course be the centre of attention. As adults, we do not expect to have all these things, but would certainly enjoy it if we did.

On a more grander scale during festivals like Christmas and Easter, we know what to do and what to expect. During Christmas time we expect to give presents, and receive some, organise family lunches, got to pantomimes and generally take some time off. In some countries they have many more social or collective traditions, whilst in others the traditions are not so clear. For example, in southern Mediterranean countries one find the village feast. In northern countries maybe one has local fetes, maybe related less to religion, but more to crafts or life connected with the land.

One of the most important aspects of traditions is the information they carry. Easter is supposed to remind us of the fundamental principle in the Christian religions; the resurrection of Christ. Birthdays, remind us about our temporal existence not to mention certain milestones which represent important relationships with the rest of society. For example, the age of consent, the age when we can vote and so on.

Traditions, first and foremost, carry information about past events. But by doing that, traditions also help us to remember what our future objectives are or at the very least, ought to be. So, the traditional ceremony of the opening of the British parliament, it is not only a reminder that the monarch is all sovereign, but also to remind us of the function of the separation of powers. That ceremony reminds us of the political and social struggles a group of societies went through in the past. And by implication, the tradition reminds us what could happen if we don’t respect those historical achievements.

As we know, however, information is only useful if it comes in a context and we have a code to decipher the message. For example, the ceremonial ritual of parliament and the ostentatious wealth of the monarch’s ceremonial robes might seem, today, quaint if not politically incorrect. But those who think this way have, maybe, forgotten the context in which the tradition started. This is not the place to go into the history of nations and countries, but rituals enabled people to know how to behave in front of what once were powerful monarchs. It is unlikely, that today's monarch would be bothered or care whether one walked in front of them with your back to them or not. But there were times when it did matter and it was regarded as the utmost disrespect if not a challenge; hence the tradition not to give your back to the monarch. In the past, one might have had their head separated from the rest of one' body, today one might be asked to observe protocol; I hope!

Whether you agree with the ritual or the protocol is a matter of politics and not rejection tradition theory. Hence, if we forget the context of the tradition we might easily mix up the choreography with the political philosophy. Take the example, that traditionally a British monarch calls the existing prime minister to form a government (which they always do), but also in the event of a hung parliament where the existing pm might not be the head of the largest party in parliament. Out of context, this might be seen as the monarch interfering in politics. There were times when the political situation in Britain was close to a crisis when there was even a hint that this might happen after an election. But when the tradition started, not only where there no such things as political parties as we know them today, but also the monarch did actually appoint someone they wanted as prime minister. From a monarch’s point of view, maybe of a few hundred years ago, this made good sense. A monarch’s business plan is always based on long term policies and objectives, on the other hand, politicians, as we know, are more short term minded.

The code that will help us interpret the information conveyed by tradition is also necessary. Unlike, context, which can be explained and even read about in books, the code to interpret traditions is different. This is something we probably have to learn from our culture or life long exposure to the tradition. The code is what makes us part of the tradition. It is one thing to observe and understand traditions, but another to be part of those traditions. So if a group of friends establish a tradition to meeting for lunch on the birthday of one them, it becomes more than just a birthday lunch. Maybe, the first time they organised this lunch it was also the time they realised they were very close to each other. Hence, those who were not there cannot know what that felt like or what it meant to those present. What it felt like or what it meant is the code, and they became part of the tradition because this helped them bond with each other.

Likewise, the state opening of parliament has a code. For a lot of people, and the following generation, this code dates back to the second world war, where Britain was the only democracy in Europe when the rest of the countries were under Nazi rule. That is the code; it is not by accident that in the British psyche people talk about the Blitz. The Blitz is not about being bombed, many more countries were brutally bombed during the war, but that the enemy did not conquer the island. Nor is it by accident that the loss of traditions is a serious debate in Britain and every where else. Of course, every country or nation has their own traditions with context and code all of their own.

Why are traditions important? Besides the connection of the past with the future, traditions have another important component. The code, if you remember, is what gives meaning to the information that comes with tradition. Traditions give us identity by giving us the opportunity to belong to a group. And the need to belong to a group is probably a genetically induced feeling in us. In other words, belonging to a group goes beyond philosophy and politics.

In turn, belonging to a group gives us identity. We have personal identity as well as group identity. An ability to answer the question; who am I? ought to be the most fundamental question in philosophy. Being able to answer this question for myself is ample proof that I, as an individual, exist and that that I am rational. The issue is not so much whether I can think, I know that; even if my thinking and reasoning leaves a lot to be desired. The issue is that if I were a figment of someone's or something's imagination, then it would that someone or something that would be doing the thinking and not me. Try it, create a fictitious being in your imagination. and get them to think that they exist. (Perform the experiment now.) That’s my point, ''the get them to think'' does not belong to them it belongs to you. Your fictitious being cannot do any thinking for themselves.

So who am I? is a question which only I can seriously answer for myself. Belonging gives us a good part of the answer. Of course, belonging can be positive belonging, I belong to a group of friends who meet on Sundays to discuss philosophy, but also “not belonging” is useful for our purposes. I would never belong to a group who pose as intellectual philosophers but in reality they want to manipulate the way people think. People who refused to join the Nazi party, or what ever party for that matter, also belonged to a group of people who gave them identity. As I said earlier, traditions are the choreography to some serious philosophy of mind and biological needs we have.

The down side of tradition is that the code that enables us to interpret a tradition might get lost, corrupted or evolves. The most complex and efficient code we are likely to come across is of course DNA; and see how that has developed. If the code to interpret a tradition might get lost then it is not surprising that traditions might also be lost or challenged.

In other words, if we cannot connect the choreography with the philosophy, then it seems quite reasonable to get rid of the choreography or simply change its function. Take the changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. The philosophy behind it is to protect the monarch, but today the monarch is protected in different ways. However, the choreography is still there, but it has evolved into a tourist attraction now. Of course, this example is quite innocuous, but we cannot say the same of all traditions that evolve.

Religious and tribal traditions are notorious for evolving into negative influences on the society and people they affect. Take fasting for example. As an educated guess, I would suggest that fasting made sense when food was a bit scarce. In many cultures the tradition of fasting takes place some time between say late winter and mid spring or at a time when food might be scarce. What could be better than not to consume food when there is a scarcity? Fasting carries information (atonement, season), it gives us a context (religion, seasonal food scarcity) and it has a code(time of year, what can be eaten and when). By fasting we would also belong. Therefore, fasting is a good opportunity to make a virtue out of a necessity. Of course, each religion or society has its own choreography to dress fasting, but have to go beyond that.

But today, there are still religions who insist on fasting and in some cases it is punished severely if people do not do it. Never mind that today we have better controls on the supply and storage of food. These type of oppressive traditions are a case when the philosophy gets lost in time or becomes redundant, but the choreography is high jacked for manipulative purposes. Maybe today, instead of fasting by not eating food, we might fast by not increasing the sum total of world debt needlessly.

Traditions are relevant as long as the philosophy behind them is still valid or, to be precise, still relevant. Although, traditions are at face value a ritual or a choreography, the philosophy behind them might be very serious and with a precise objective. For this reason, I would suggest that when someone proposes to do away with a tradition we should follow some guidelines. Apart from examining the motives of the reformer, we ought to look at 1) the philosophy behind the tradition we’re asked to abandon 2) the consequences that result from abandoning a tradition and 3) what new tradition or traditions will replace the old one?

Of course, traditions do not tell us whether they are good or evil, right or wrong, just or discriminatory. But then again, neither does DNA tell us anything about these things.

Take care


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