The Tragedy of Tradition

Why even write about something so innocuous and dear to the American heart? Well because short of the big three -Relgion, corporation, government- it’s just about the most harmful abstract noun ever developed for the mind of man. Why? Because quite simply, it discourages thought, the very thing which makes us human. Cogito ergo sum and all that. Tradition had a purpose, it is a course of action taken because it has been taken for some time. It’s the active equivalent of the phrase “that’s just the way it is”. Tradition is an understandable reaction to the environment and human ignorance. Expediency is important when you are spreading a new idea that can make the group stronger. Consider Kashrut, the Jewish culinary traditions that among many other things limit how soon after food is prepared that you can eat it. Obviously it’s a not good idea to eat rancid meat, and sometimes you can’t tell it’s rancid, further, time had an impact on when meat was safe to eat and when it wasn’t. Early Jews must have learned this through observation. They discovered that sometimes, but not always when a person ate meat of a given age range the person sometimes fell ill despite the meat appearing perfectly fine, some even died. They did not understand what was happening as we understand it, and they did not understand how it was happening, but they were damn sure that it was happening and they didn’t want it to happen to their friends and family, so they made it a tradition to eat the meat quickly. Tradition is a rule which must be followed without reason, and which continues to be followed for cultural rather than rational reasons. There was no reason to believe that the eating of rancid meat was going to be a good idea any time soon so they didn’t include a time limit, or a location limit, like seafaring traditions. The tradition here explained had good intentions, and it certainly saved lives, many thousands I’m sure, but now in the age of refrigeration and cellular biology, that tradition becomes somewhat annoying, and potentially even harmful. We know why they got sick and it didn’t have anything to do with time except that time impacted bacterial growth, if we skip the middle man and inhibit that growth, time stops being a factor. But Jews still follow the tradition, because they always have, because it’s tradition, which makes their food slightly more expensive and makes certain foods a sin altogather. This is a detriment to their group, much like lactose intolerance is a detriment because it shrinks your food supply.

The refrigerator, and cell biology were unpredictable factors at the time of the tradition’s inception. And lucky for the Jews the blow back isn’t too vicious, but other cultures haven’t been so lucky. Consider the rules created to defend members of a given group from the perils associated with primitive medical practices. Which at the time were little more than hocus pocus and alchemy wearing a butcher’s coat, and often times far more deadly than the ailments they strived to cure. As a result various religious traditions restricted medical treatments. Here the cost is a lot steeper, sometimes it’s even children’s lives. Or to be more topical, the health of Muslim women. Well that’s easy you say, just cherry pick the traditions. Ok I say, but how do you know which ones, and if you get to pick, then why obey any of them? Why not just think for yourself? Tradition itself is the problem. In my view no one should take any action that hasn’t been thought out or at least is subject to the possibility of being thought out and revised. Tradition forbids revision inherently; yet revision is at the heart of responsive human action. The irony is that tradition stifles innovation by definition, but all traditions began as innovations in behavior. Human action must respond to a dynamic environment. Human action cannot be based on instinct and habit alone, it must be based on forethought and evidence, if we expect to survive long term. Luckily for the majority, some people have dedicated their lives to crushing tradition. Such as the people that chose to develop flight, study the stars, or destroy illness. We support 6 billion people. Rationality and it’s child, technology, is the only reason we’re capable of doing so. If you stripped us of our technology, well over half of us would die of exposure outright and nearly the rest would die of starvation and plague. Tradition is a stagnating force, perhaps the most powerful. Some say it brings stability, and I agree, but stability can be a bad thing. For the 30 thousand that died today of malnutrition, how things are is a pretty lousy set up. Those with a vested interest in stagnation like to scare you and say change is chaos, change is anarchy, change is destruction, change is terrorism, and change is sedition, but I say that without knowing the future, how can they know that? I say change is ours to command if we move towards it with open eyes, an open mind, and an honest purpose. As a cartoon once said, your effort to remain what you are is what limits you. Tradition for its own sake is quite literally killing us.