You know the refrain: “The Papa, the Papa! Tradition.” It’s a great play but it is firmly rooted in the patriarchy, as “tradition” often is.
There are many ways to define “tradition” and we can look it up somewhere and have a flameware over dictionary meanings if you want. But instead I’ll tell you what I think the word means, roughly, generally, and subject to revision.
First, “tradition” is a feature of culture that simply refers to practices that are habitual. A subset of “traditions” are formalized or regularized, like holidays in many cultures (not all cultures have holidays or annual traditions). “Tradition” also refers to some sort of time depth … something can be thought of as traditional if it is something that has “always” been done a certain way. More to the point, however, is that the way something IS done (or is planned) is a certain way by reference to prior practice. We will put the Christmas Tree in that corner of the room because we’ve always put it in that corner of the room. And in this context, some traditions are quite labile while others are not. You can actually move the Christmas Tree around all you want in most Tree-using households, but perhaps you would have a much harder time not putting one up at all. Or, perhaps you can change up the exact way you cook the food for the annual feast, but the Papa still gets to decide whom his daughter marries. “The Papa, the Papa! Tradition.”
The time depth aspect of “tradition” is well understood in the context of archaeology. Many archaeologists use words like “horizon” for a thing they see across a large space but not with a lot of time depth. Things that are maintained through long periods of time … certain pottery decorative motifs, certain kinds of stone tools … may be called “traditions.”
I have three small personal observations to make about traditions that serve to expose some important aspects of them.
When I was planning to work with the Efe (Pygmies) in the Ituri Forest some years back, I read everything written about them (there is actually not that much compared to, say, The Maya or Justin Beiber or something). One of the things that was recorded by several different ethnographic observers (anthropologists, missionaries, etc.) was how they bury their dead. In many societies, including many (more or less) Western societies, how you bury your dead is pretty strictly determined, and highly “traditional” as you know. And, if you ask any group of Efe, you might infer that their “tradition” is also fairly strict, and you might assume that they have been burying their dead the same way for a long time.
However, among the half dozen or so historical accounts and the three or four modern accounts (including my own) of how an Efe Pygmy is buried, in three different areas of the Ituri Forest covering almost a century of time, no two accounts were the same. At all. It would appear that Efe burial practices vary considerably across time and space, while in other cultures, burial is quite “traditional” in the sense of prescribed, determined, and time-deep.
Conclusion: The KINDS of things one may think of as typically traditional (marriage, burial, life-stage transitions, etc. etc.) may actually not be across cultures. It is not safe to extend one’s own view of how things are done outside one’s own culture without actually looking at other cultures.
(As an aside, I’ll mention that attention to the dead in both severity and regularity among Native American groups in the US shifted to be much more homogeneous when cultural patrimony became a powerful political tool. I believe something similar happened in Australia as well. I suspect those two cases are not isolated in the history of humanity.)
My second observation is less about cross cultural aspects of tradition, but rather, on how the heck traditions emerge to begin with. When I graduated with my PhD from a small eastern college, I noticed that the people up on the stage … the official people, like the President and the major Deans … were decked out in Edwardian Garb including top hats and so on. The college itself was over 300 years old, so this was not the dress of the earliest days of the school (though the graduate school’s graduation suit was Renaissance style). I wondered … did they decide during the Edwaradian period to update the stage dress, then forget to keep it updated? Or did they decide during the 1960s or some other later time period to go retro, and happen to like top hats in a foreshadowing of Steampunk Fashion? The point is that this was an obvious case, because of the time-trip nature of it all, of manufactured tradition rather than tradition just happening because you do something long enough.
Which leads to my third observation: With a new child in the house, Amanda and I are staring to talk about “traditions” we’d like to start. I’ve always thought that the best, most ancient, and reliable traditions are the ones you just thought up and pretend you’ve always been doing. Easier to keep the story straight, at least in the beginning. When Julia was little, she did not like cake (still doesn’t) so the tradition emerged to have pie instead for her birthday. With Huxley, we are hoping to completely eliminate both pie and cake and have him enjoy something healthier, such as a pineapple. You can stick a candle in a pineapple, right? The interesting thing about this is the push back we may (or may not) receive from others. If we are really going to have birthday-cake free parties for him on his birthday, we’re basically going to have to not ever invite anyone (except Julia) in order to avoid all the crap we’ll have to take for not providing Huxley with an opportunity to smear frosting all over his head.
The reason I point out this observation is that it is a fairly mild but still instructive example of the conflict that can occur around tradition. We will be starting, any day now, The War on Christmas, during which Atheists such as myself are accused of being Nazis because we prefer to say “happy holidays” … thus being more inclusive … over some other greeting. There will be conflict over this. I will have to decide in a couple of weeks if I’d like to go on the local FOX news station and debate this as I’ve done before (I’m thinking of suggesting someone else to do this … I’m growing tired of manufactured arguments like this one.) Large and seemingly influential non-profit churchy groups have held major corporations hostage over this issue. Fights over tradition can get quite nasty.
Tradition is probably a good thing when it tells you what to do and how to do it in a good way. Tradition tells us to not eat the paint, but instead, the pancakes. It reminds us of certain obligations that are probably important. And so on. But tradition can also be uncritical and misleading, facilitating some rather dumb behavior. But at its worst, it can be, and often is, a tool of those in power used to keep control over important aspects of life: which person, or which kind of person, to love or marry; whom to treat as a superior; who gets to kneel on a carpet and who does not while being beheaded. Well, maybe not that last one so much anymore (except metaphorically, of course).
Tradition. “The Papa, the Papa! Tradition.”
The next edition of Skeptically Speaking will consist of a panel of individuals led by Desiree Schell talking about tradition. I hope you can join us! And if you missed it, you can certainly catch the podcast.