Traditions, as a set of actively taught expectations, primarily provide means of division: we do this, they do that—aren’t they evil, inconsequential, less-than-human. The folly that is religion illustrates this well. The core principles do not differ significantly among the various flavors of Mosaic religions, but the traditions of practice serve to create violent divisions between Jew, Christian, and Muslim. Take away those traditions and the reason (if the word is appropriate in reference to so irrational a system of thought) for the conflicts evaporates. The “us v. them” mindset codified in traditions has underpinned the institutions of slavery, the Hindu caste system, and the oppression of women and minorities.
Sonnenberg’s suggestion that “once we ignore the meaning of our traditions, we’re in danger of damaging the underpinning of our identity” just misses the mark. More accurately, when we stop thinking about the origins and ramifications of our traditions we suborn our identities to mindless compliance with the status quo, and by extension, with those who benefit most from the status quo. When, out of unthinking compliance with tradition, mothers actively participate in the genital mutilation of their daughters, one can see the horrific power of unquestioned acceptance of tradition. Authority, and particularly authority that has become petrified in tradition, needs constant examination if we hope to avoid becoming the pawns of others. Without vigilance, traditions take over our identities and replace consideration with obedience.
Similarly, Sonnenberg’s praise for tradition as “an excellent context for meaningful pause and reflection” needs tweaking. Traditions typically limit such thoughtful pauses to a few occasions. How often do you really give thought to peace on earth—outside of the Christmas season (for those who adhere to that theology)? The rest of the year it’s live and let die. How many go to church on Sunday to prepare for a new week of ignoring the precepts they claim to hold dear? I imagine that those who need a traditional reason for thoughtful reflection use it to excuse the lack of it during the rest of their lives. Thoughtless yahoos do not become considerate because of traditional time of reflection; they just think they do. Tradition just cheapens the price of involvement.
Humans seem to need human contact for comfort, to a greater or lesser individual extent. However, a sense of belonging tends to result in the formation of out-groups: meaningful inclusion demands an excluded group. Traditions, as a human construct, reflect this. So while tradition “contributes to a sense of…belonging” be mindful that it also supports exclusion. Sonnenberg’s assertion that “tradition enables us to…celebrate diversity” does not ring true. Diversity finds celebration mostly in not belonging to the out-group: “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has not created me a woman” (Jewish morning blessing—said by a man, of course). The threat of being ostracized from the in-group tempers the comfort of current inclusion.
Tradition, and again let me emphasize that I refer here only to the sort that is actively taught, such as religion, not the sort that emerges organically, such as eating at a particular restaurant every Wednesday, harbors dangers that Sonnenberg ignores in this article. Traditions have provided the excuse for the perpetration and perpetuation of terrible inhumanities and diminished the individual to a mere bit actor in life. While those who benefit from the outcomes—churches, males, warlords—naturally want the traditions to continue, the rest of us suffer.
I remain unconvinced that unquestioning adherence to tradition is a net good. Individuals can achieve everything Sonnenberg attributes to traditions through individual effort. You need not wait for Memorial Day to thank a vet, or wait for Thanksgiving to gather with your family, or Independence Day to celebrate the principles on which the USA stands, or New Year’s Day to think about the trajectory of your life, or a wedding anniversary to honor your spouse. Indeed, you may find, as I have, that turning from traditions and making conscious efforts to define my relationship with society on my own terms has provided a greater sense of satisfaction and meaning than I ever felt before. Try acting not in ways that have been defined for you but in ways you have defined for yourself.
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