Every society has at least one culture in its midst, and that culture can be divided further into subcultures, all different in subtle or fairly major ways. The defining trait of a culture or subculture is transmission. Cultural traditions are passed down from present or past generations to the young, with the assumption that they, in turn, will pass the practices and beliefs to their descendants. In life, there is very little truly written in stone, but a high degree of immutability characterizes most traditions. That’s what gives them form and strength, and a means of comforting us.
That resistance to change also makes traditions potentially dangerous.
Tradition in its various forms helps guide us when faced with difficult situations—either familiar ones we might find new, like seeking a life partner, or entirely novel ones, such as certain ethical dilemmas. Traditions soothe us in a hectic world: if, for example, we know that a wedding in our county “is always like this” and not that, that knowledge means there are no surprises in that area at least, even if chaos reigns elsewhere. Traditions bring order and predictability, thereby relieving stress. They bring us into closer fellowship, even a sort of pseudo-kinship, with people we are not necessarily related to but who share our tribe or group—and those people may live far away or be long dead. We cannot possibly feel totally alone if we are part of this web of connection across time and space, and despite other differences.
Tradition also locks us into anachronistic thoughts and deeds. Some practices may have been extremely useful at some time in history, and been maintained down the centuries because no great harm came of them. But, in contemporary times, these firmly held ideas have to be examined, especially when they repeatedly run up against new realities:
- proximity to other cultures and their traditions and beliefs;
- scarcity of materials and other resources necessary for upholding the tradition;
- more, shall we say, enlightened practices born of philosophical progress;
- financial considerations, often closely linked to issues of scarcity.
There are many cultural practices presently under debate, sometimes within the culture (usually, but not always, by the young), but often from outside the culture. (Other traditions barely merit a look, but I predict they will be examined within the next decade.)
The debates arise when we can no longer ignore matters of (1) sustainability, (2) ethics, (3) human rights, (4) “animal rights” (I’m personally not fond of the term), as well as the disparate levels of (5) disgust and aversion that emerge when immigration forces once geographically separate peoples into co-existence.
Here are some examples of currently debated (and in some cases partially abated) traditions.
- Shark fin soup served at Chinese weddings (1, 4, 5);
- Female genital mutilation in parts of Africa (2, 3, 5);
- Songbird massacres during spring and autumn migrations in southern Europe and Egypt, among other places (1, 4);
- So-called “honor killings” practiced in many developing countries, carried forth by their emigrants to more industrialized nations (2, 3, maybe 5).
Here are a few examples of traditions that could do with open and frank debate.
- The prevalence of large families in fundamentalist religions, with or without arranged marriages;
- The mechanisms of corporate culture and capitalism in general—it may not be connected to a country or society like other cultures, but in most other ways it conforms to the definition and, thus, has traditions that go largely unchallenged;
- The assumption in almost all cultures around the world that animal food is the most important part of a person’s diet, and that anything necessary for finding those animal products should be pursued, hang the cost (ethical, ecological, etc.). (See shark fin soup, songbird hunts, ad infinitum.)What do you think should go on this partial list? What do you think of my initial choices?