The Value of Tradition

There is a story of a 16 year old girl, who sat down by the kitchen counter and observed her mother prepare lunch for the family.  The meal is meatloaf, with rice and mashed potatoes on the side, something the girl had seen her mother prepare a hundred times in the past.  And like always, prior to putting the meatloaf in the oven, the mother cuts off roughly one-third from one end of the dish, and then proceeds to bake it, while throwing the cutoff chunk of meat into the trash.  To the girl, this always seemed strangely wasteful.  What’s the point of cutting off one end of the meatloaf?  Does it enhance the taste somehow?  Is it easier, faster to bake when you only have two-thirds worth of a dish?  Finally, she asked the mother for an explanation to this mystery.

“Oh, I don’t know,” said the mother, “it’s the way my mother always made it.  I just figured she must have had a good reason.  She has been cooking much longer than I have.”

Unsatisfied with such a non-answer, the girl set out towards her grandmother’s house the next day to get to the bottom of this whole castrating meatloaf ritual.

After arriving at her grandmother’s house, the girl posed the same question she asked her mother:  What’s the reason for cutting off one-third of the meatloaf before baking it?

“Well, I guess you can say it’s somewhat of a family tradition,” said the grandmother, “cooking tradition, that is.  All I really know is that it’s the way my mother always did it.  And I assume the same goes for her mother, my grandmother.”

Fortunately, for the inquisitive 16 year old (with no apparent social life), the 96 year old great-grandmother was still alive, and within reaching distance–the mystery of Meatloafgate could still be solved.  So, she biked down a few miles to great-grandma’s, to once again ask the same question a third time:  What’s the deal with our family’s meatloaf cutting tradition?

“Tradition?” repeated the great-grandmother bemused, “Ha!  I’ll show you your tradition.  Gimme a sec.”  She lifted herself, balancing on her hickory cane, and wobbled to her tiny kitchen.  She looked through a couple of cabinets, before exclaiming a resound, “Aha, here’s your tradition, right here!”  Then she brought forward to the girl, a tiny baking tray, big enough to hold only two-thirds of a meatloaf dish.

The mystery was over, and from that moment on, so was the family tradition.

In the past, I have used this story a number of times to illustrate the mistaken value we might unknowingly be attributing to the various traditions we hold dear in our lives.  Friedrich Nietzsche proposed that traditions are nothing more but arbitrary customs that individuals are indoctrinated into by the community, stating, “How the tradition originated is indifferent; in any case it was without any regard for good and evil or any immanent categorical imperative, but above all in order to preserve the community, a people” (Human, All-Too-Human, section 96).  It is certainly true that many, if not most, people perform and take part in social customs for reasons that might elude them, other than a vague, “it’s just what we’ve always done.”

A good example would be the institution of marriage.  The exact origin of when, and why, marriage began as a common practice is unknown, leaving us mostly with various myths and legends of ancient cultures.  However, despite this murky genealogy, the notion that marriage is a sacred act is still a common sentiment in the general public.  In America, divorce is as prevalent as marriage, but no one ever says that divorce is a sacred act (even though, the origin of divorce is probably as ancient as the origin of marriage).  We take it as a given that getting married is a tradition that we, as a healthy society, ought to value.  Thus, because we are taught to value marriage as an important aspect of our cultural tradition, we see no reason to develop a rationality for its exists.  And the ones we have come up with are bound to spiral into circular reasoning and tautologies (it’s a valued tradition, because we traditionally value it).  For instance, take the following exchange:

“Marriage is a sacred tradition, because it enjoys a long history within civilized society.”

“But so did slavery.”

“But marriage serves a social function for the community, it has utility.”

“So did slavery.”

“Yeah, o.k., but marriage is a legal union entered into voluntary by consenting partners.”

“Historically, there actually have been legally binding forms of slavery, entered into by consenting parties, usually to pay off a dept or loan.”

“But now you’re talking about the exception, not the rule.”

“So are you.  Much of the history of marriage has seen the tradition as a form of coercion, in which one partner’s consent was neither needed nor sought to make the act legally binding.”

“We can’t just start throwing traditions out the window, we would lose our cultural integrity.”

“But we have done away with, or at least stopped socially valuing, a large number of traditions in the past (slavery, segregation, male/female gender roles), and often for the sake of cultural progression.”

“Your playing semantics with me.”

“I can’t help it.  Scrutinizing ideas and ideals may very well be part of my cultural tradition.”

Now, before anyone misinterprets what I’m trying to say, this post is not in any way about equating marriage to slavery, or a call for the dissolution of marriages.  What I am doing is asking why we feel the need to attribute value to traditions, for no other reason than that it is considered a tradition?  Why is it so hard for us to say that, yes, much of what we deem to be part of our cultural tradition is arbitrary, and in the scope of history, will probably prove to be provisional to our particular social era.  Does this undermine the value of our traditions?  I don’t know.  If we had a time machine, and were able to discover the exact origins of all of our traditional customs, would we still bother performing those whose history we now knew to differ from our original conception of them?  Again, I don’t know.

Perhaps, it would be best for us to simply start reevaluating out customs now.  Defend them as if they are on trial, awaiting due judgment.  After all, if the traditions we hold dear are as valuable as we perceive them, no amount of self-scrutiny and rational argument should be strong enough to even cause a dent.

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