Tag Archives: values

James Frey: A Lesson of Honesty in Writing

In 2003, James Frey published a widely acclaimed memoir, titled A Million Little Pieces, about his experiences as a young addict struggling to rehabilitate his life back to sobriety.  It is a dark and engaging account of the depth to which a person can fall as his inner demons–in this case, manifesting externally in the form of crack and booze–brings him to a crossroads in which the next handful of decisions could literary be the determining factor between life or death.

Needless to say, the reading public responded very well to the book, and Frey was heralded not just as a great writer and storyteller, but as somewhat of a hero for those who have been affected by the horrors of addiction (either personally, or vicariously), for whom he served as an eloquent communicator to the general public on how to emphasize with their less-than-sober counterparts in society.

As time went by, praise and attention continued to grow, and Frey’s star shined bright enough to even warrant attention from Oprah Winfrey’s coveted Book Club (surely, the hallmark of any author serious about actually selling her or his book in the industry).  Around this same time, however, a different sort of attention was also creeping up and casting a more accusatory shadow over Frey’s spotlight.  Eventually, after much push and pull, and pontificating about integrity and trust, it was revealed that a large chunk of the details concerning Frey’s lived experiences in the book, were not lived experiences at all.  Although we don’t know exactly to what extend things have been fabricated in the faux-memoir, we do know that just about every event detailed that ought to be verifiable (i.e. police records, specific people and interactions, etc.) simply aren’t.  So much so, that the book nowadays sits in the fiction section of your local bookstore, and serves as a case in point of a literary forgery.

Despite all the controversy, it needs to be said that James Frey is actually a decent writer, and A Million Little Pieces is not a badly written book, and given his knack for storytelling he has gone on to write several subsequent works that are equally engaging and enjoyable (though, since the incident, he has wisely kept both feet squarely within the realm of fiction; showing that a person truly can learn something from a degree of public shame).  Thus, the question I’m more interested in concerning this entire mess isn’t really about Frey’s stand alone role in this matter, but rests more on the issue regarding the extend to which the writing world (writ large) has a professional obligation to maintain honesty with its readers?

The question should be an easy one on first sight, for who would say out loud that writers need to be free to unabashedly lie to their audience?  This is especially true for writers whose prose rests in the realm of non-fiction.  Yet, although certainly true, I think just repeating a platitude on this matter does little to really convey the seriousness of an incident like this.

Sticking with the example at hand, I read Frey’s book after the drama had already unfolded, and was never in doubt about the faulty veracity of its claims as one might have been if they came to the work under the ruse of it being an honest memoir of a person’s private struggles.  I can see how someone who had become emotionally invested in the story of the flawed-yet-persistent person fighting to gain back some semblance of meaning and sanity in his chaotic life, would have felt more than a little betrayed on hearing that this “real” person was a mere sensationalized character in one authors hopeful attempt at circumnavigating through the competitive hoops of the publishing world.  They felt duped, and rightfully so, because in a very clear way they were.  And this one experience could very well sour the public and harden a cynical attitude towards the apparently appalling lack of a rigorous vetting process on the hands of publishers more concerned with making a buck of off people’s empathy, then researching on whether the “real-life” story they’re selling is in fact bunk.

This is where the responsibility lies, in my opinion.  The literary world as a whole has an obligation to at the very least accurately promote the product they are selling.  And to do so prior to publication, not post-public outcry, which (let’s be honest) will still push sales by virtue of secondhand curiosity alone.  I accept that I’m naive in my thinking to expect a business to prioritize integrity and honesty over financial imperatives, but seeing as how–if I’m inclined to share an opinion on the matter–I feel obligated it be an honest one; be it idealist, if it must.

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The Value of Patriotism: A Rant

This is going to be a rant, brought about partially by the brain-draining ennui of the seemingly never-ending election season.  So bear with me for a second, please.

I believe it is important to own up to one’s ignorance on a topic, hence I have to admit that I don’t understand patriotism.  I can understand the desire individuals might have to closely associate to one group or another for the sake of feeling a greater level of security, or even just to provide some reference of possessing a “greater” identity.  I can also understand how this might develop into a sense of protectiveness towards one’s place of birth, which (after family) is usually the most common form of self-identity for a person.  But what I don’t understand is how acknowledgment of the fact that we are relatively dependent on the communities we reside in, translates into a perpetual need to proclaim the superiority of one’s arbitrary nation of origin over any other.  After all, no one chooses the place he or she–or one’s ancestors–will be born in.  The accomplishments that have been achieved by individuals who happen to reside within the same borders as you were done wholly independent of your existence (and even if you had a direct participation in some grand achievement, would it be fair to attribute your accomplishments to something as random as a place of birth?).

What perplexes me most about patriotic sentiments is the manner in which most people accept its value as a self-evident fact.  “You need to be proud of where you come from”, “My country, good or bad”, “Any man who does not love his land, and the land of his forefathers, is a man who does not love himself.”  The message propagated by all sides is one that denounced all who do not feel the fervor of patriotism as possessing some kind of defect in character.  That if you don’t show an innate defensiveness about your nationality, you are thought of as somehow deprived of a matter that is (for some reason or another) vital to a person’s psychological health.  This I don’t understand.  And simply repeating to me that it’s important to feel pride towards your country of origin is not an argument, it is a demand–worse yet, it is a command.  A call for assimilation, in favor of a value that can not be defended outside of baseless tautologies (i.e. “being patriotic is good, because it is good to be patriotic”).  I pay my taxes.  I follow the laws of the land.  So, why must I stand in union with the rest of you as you shout meaningless slogans, sing eccentric hymns, and salute pieces of cloths as if they were the very fabric holding the universe together?  Why must I prove that I deserve to be a part of this community through such flamboyant means, when I am already doing my all to keep society functioning at the individual level (the only level I have any authority on)?

I am not ashamed of either the country I was born in, nor the one I currently reside and identify with, but neither am I overtly proud.  In truth, I am forced to be neutral on it as a whole, since it holds no uniform identity from coast to coast, from city to city, from person to person.  Perhaps, the patriots are right, and my apathy is causing me to miss out on something spectacular here.  But then again, I can’t really miss that which I’ve never had.

Practicing Self-Scrutiny

Genuine self-scrutiny is a personal virtue that is much easier preached than practiced.  Usually the furthest most of us are willing to go is a relativistic acknowledgment that differing opinions exist to our own and that, all things considering, we would be willing to change our minds if these alternative viewpoints were to persuade us sufficiently.  But, in my opinion, this sort of tacit relativism isn’t much in the way of self-scrutiny.  To self-scrutinize is to actively challenge the values and ideals we hold dear to our person–to dare to shake the foundation holding up our most cherished beliefs, so to speak, and test if the structure on which we house our beliefs is sturdy enough to withstand a direct attack.  In contrast, the aforementioned acknowledgment that differing (and potentially equally valid) views exist to our own is a very passive stance, as it strictly relies on an external source to come along and challenge our own position(s), with no actual self-scrutiny being involved in the process.

Up to this point, this very post can be rightfully characterized amongst the passive variant; i.e. it’s me (an external source) attempting to challenge you to question the manner by which you view the world around you.  Although there are occasionally posts on this blog in which I sincerely try to adopt opposing stances to my own, the truth is that I do this primarily to better strengthen my own position by being able to effectively understand what I’m arguing against.  This, too, is not self-scrutiny.  And it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise.  To truly self-scrutinize I would have to pick a position–a value, an ideal–by which I orientate my worldview around, and mercilessly strip it to its bone.  The frustrating part of such a mental exercise is the inevitability of having to rely on generalizations of my own opinions in order to be able to paraphrase them thoroughly enough, without getting trapped in a game over meaningless semantics.  The important thing to remember is that the points I will be arguing over (largely with myself) in this post are admittedly stripped of their nuances regarding obvious exceptions and impracticalities, so as not to lose focus of the underlying principles that are being addressed.  Consider this a disclaimer for the more pedantic-minded amongst my readers (you know who you are).

First, it would be helpful if I stated a value by which I orientate my worldview around, prior to trying to poke holes into it.  Above most else, as long as I can remember I have always valued the egalitarian approach to most facets of human interaction.  I truly do believe that the most effective and just and fair means for society to function is for its sociopolitical and judiciary elements to strive for as equitable an approach to administering its societal role as possible.  In this view, I also recognized that this can more realistically be considered an ideal for society to endeavor towards than an all-encompassing absolute–nonetheless, I still see it as a valuable ideal for modern society to be striving towards.  Additionally, I should clarify that I do not necessarily claim this personal value of mine to be derived from anything higher than my own personal preferences to how I think society ought to be.  Yes, it is subjective, as it is subject to my desires and interests, however I would argue that this is true of just about any alternative/opposing viewpoint that may be brought up.  Furthermore, the merits and benefits I believe to be implicit in my personal preference of an egalitarian society (though admittedly subjective) are (in my opinion) independently verifiable outside of just my own internal desires.  In short, I value egalitarianism on account that, because I have no just and tangible means by which to sift through who merits to occupy which position in the social hierarchy we all live in, I consider it important that (if nothing else, at least on the basic application of our political and judicial proceedings), we hold all members of society to an equal standard.  Moreover, not that it matters to determining the validity of the egalitarian viewpoint, but I’m convinced that the majority of the people reading this will have little trouble agreeing with the benefits of such a worldview (though probably more in principle, while leaving room on disagreement on the most practical means by which to apply said principle in the social framework).

Now, the immediate issue I see arising with this stance of mine is the objection that genuine egalitarianism can easily lead to outright conformity–especially enforced conformity–as a society built on the model of complete equality might find it difficult to function unless it actively sets out to maintain the equality it’s seeking to establish.  It is a harsh fact that large-scale human interaction is not naturally egalitarian; meaning that left to their own devices there is little in historical evidence to suggest that a complex society of people will not diversify themselves into a multi-layered hierarchy; thereby instinctively creating the social disparity that the egalitarian mindset it aiming to combat.  The most obvious response would be to insist that egalitarianism simply means that the basic functions of society (i.e. the law) have to be applied equally, and that as long as measures are upheld in society, the system will self-correct to its default setting.  Yet, this outlook is only convincing as long as one is inclined to have faith in the sincerity of the application of the law, in terms of holding all in society to an equal standard.  This also brings us to the issue of who is to be the arbiter warranted with upholding the principles of an egalitarian system.  The judiciary?  The policymakers?  And does this then bestow on these individuals a set of authority (i.e. power and privilege) that thereby creates a disparity which in itself violates the very premise of a truly egalitarian model?

“In a democratic society, the authority rests with the people in the society to ultimately decide on who is to be the arbiter(s) to ensure that equality is being upheld in said society on the people’s behalf.”

But to maintaining social equality by means of representative democracy brings us to the issue of having those in the minority opinion be subject the to whims of the majority.  And is this not also in itself is a violation of what an egalitarian society ought to be striving for?  When we play out the potential pitfalls of every one of these concerns what we end up with is the realization that, in practice, egalitarianism seems to only function when applied on a selective basis.  Complete equality, across the board, on all matters, has the serious consequence of either ending up in a social gridlock (rendering all manners of progress on any issue impossible), or coercion (negating the benignity that is ideally associated with egalitarianism).

I’ve heard it said how in this sort of a discussion it is important to differentiate between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity; that the latter is the truly worthwhile goal an egalitarian ought to be striving for in order to ensure a just and fair society.  I’m not sure this does much to address the primary issue at hand.  If there exists no disparity in opportunity, but we reserve an inequity in outcome, than will it not be the case that you will still end up with a select number of individuals occupying a higher role in the social hierarchy than others?  And once the foundation is laid for such a development, is it not just as likely that those who end up occupying a higher role could put in place measures that will be of greater benefit to themselves, even at the expense of those who fell into lower social roles (i.e. meaning that even though in this model all opportunity was equally available at first, the caveat that different people can have different outcomes–fall into more or less favorable social conditions–leaves open the issue of what safeguard is there that those who manage to rise high enough will not manipulate matters to their advantage in society; including stifling the outcome and opportunity potentials of future generations; therefore, undermining the whole egalitarian ideal on which the system was meant to be founded on).  If the rebuttal is that in a truly egalitarian society measures would be in place to prevent this, we fall back to the question of who exactly is to be the arbiter warranted with upholding the principles of an egalitarian system.  Thus bringing us full-circle the line of inquiry mentioned in the preceding paragraphs.

These are objections that, even as someone who considers himself an egalitarian, I have a lot of sympathies with.  Mainly because I don’t have any way to refute them without appealing to a personal intuition that these concerns are not endemic to an egalitarian model and that it’s ultimately feasible to avoid such potential pitfalls.  However, I have to also admit that I’m not entirely sure of this myself.  This problem brings me directly to the confrontation of what do I value more in society:  the principle of equality, or the autonomous individual?  The threat that removing all disparity that exists between all individuals might lead to a stifling of the distinct individuality of people is something I believe is worth worrying over.  What good is a world where equality is triumphant but reigns on the basis of enforced sameness?  Not to mention, what will happen to the human ingenuity all of us in modern life dependent on for our survival as a society?  The prospect of attaining personal achievement is necessitated by one’s ability to standout above the fold, and create something unique and distinct from the common.  The possibility that this drive will be held in suspect in a completely egalitarian world, in the name of preemptively combating all forms of perceived inequality, no matter how unpleasant it might be to my core values, is not something I can dismiss simply because it’s inconvenient to my worldview.  Essentially, I believe that it would be unwise to simply brush off the point that a world safeguarded to the point where no one falls, is also potentially a world where no one rises.

When I started writing this post I had a standard set of points I knew I would raise to fulfill my interest of demonstrating a genuine attempt at unrestrained self-scrutiny.  I know that some readers might wonder why I’m not doing more to combat the objections I’ve raised here against my own egalitarian perspective, and the simple truth is that it’s because I understand my desire for egalitarianism to be practical and feasible rests almost entirely on the fact that I want both of those things to be true, because it would validate my presupposed worldview.  Nonetheless, I do understand that reality does not dependent on my personal whims and wishes.  In all honesty, having actually reasoned out the premises here, I’m left wondering, if for the sake of practicality we will undoubtedly always be forced to be to some extend selective with our approach to egalitarianism, why do we (I) still even bother calling it egalitarianism at all?  Perhaps there is a term out there that more honestly fits what most of us mean when we seek to uphold what we refer to as egalitarian principles.  That, however, is a wholly separate discussion to my intentions here.  My goal was to hold my own views and values to the fire and see where it ends up.  In that goal, I think I’ve gone as far as this medium allows…what results from it will take a bit more thinking on my part to figure out.

Oscar Wilde’s Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: The Threat of Art

To mention the word controversial in the same sentence with Oscar Wilde is to be repetitive.  And the Irish writer’s The Picture of Dorian Gray–his only published novel–is nothing less but a testament to the man’s gift for astute social observation and spectacular prose.  If you have not read the work, I would advise you to do so immediately, as it stands as a superb contribution to the ranks of both romantic and gothic literature.

Upon its initial publication in 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray was instantly denounce by critics for its espousal of homoerotic and hedonistic indulgences.  So much so that Oscar Wilde saw it necessary to add a Preface to the original text as a defense of his work.  But the short Preface should not be seen as just a rebuttal of Wild’s critics, instead it reads as a promulgation of art as a whole, and a denunciation of the cynic whose mindset is too narrow to grasp fact that even though great, as well as bad, works of art are on display for the public, the true power lies in its strength to move the individual’s heart and mind.

Wilde begins the Preface by stating, “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.  To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim,” adding, “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.  This is a fault.”  Here, Wilde is addressing the specific critics of his novel, noting that it is not he, the writer–the artist–who is to blame for the offense taking by the audience of his work.  For, any perverse imagery that is elicited by the sensitive reader is a demonstration of the perversity of the reader’s own mind, and not necessarily that of the author or his prose.  Wilde’s further scoff against the fault of being corrupt without being charming is clearly an allusion to his title character Dorian Gray, who through all of his moral corruption at least manages to remain charming (and beautiful to the world), something that his real life critics–who see fit to designate themselves as his moral superiors–don’t manage to do, in Wilde’s eyes.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.  Books are well written, or badly written.  That is all.”  It must have been telling for Wilde how all the critiques being leveled against his novel only focus on what are perceived to be obscenities within the text, and never the text itself.  If a book is rubbish than let it be shown how it fails to meet the value of worthwhile literature, and we can move on to better things.  But to deride a novel because it presents a topic a person does not wish to be discussed, or raises issues the public would rather be kept out of sight, is to reveal more about one’s own flimsy convictions than that of the author’s.  Or, as Oscar Wilde put it, “No art is ever morbid.  The artist can express everything.”  Any moral foundation that is distraught in the process couldn’t have been too sturdy to begin with.

“All art is at once surface and symbol.  Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.  Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.  It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”  We are the arbitrators of the mediums we choose to entertain ourselves with, thus when we feel repulsed by a piece of art, it is our responsibility to step away from it in bad taste–not to dictate to others about the need to stifle the offensive material.  If I shout out a cry of fear that something will corrupt society, you can be rest assured that what you’re hearing is nothing more but a deep-seated panic that something will corrupt me.  But if a person is already at this stage, then he is already completely corrupted by the source of his worry.  He has already embraced the splendor of the art’s power, drawn into it to the point of drowning within it, and is now paddling anxiously to get back to the safe shore–away from the sea of unknown euphoria.

“We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it.  The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.  All art is quite useless.”  Unlike other disciplines, art holds no immediate pragmatic worth to the structural progress of human societies.  Buildings are not art for the sake of being art, they have an intended use.  Same goes for nonfiction books, whose goal is to inform, and not necessarily inspire the reader’s imagination.  Wilde was right that art, created solely for the sake of being admired and revered, is objectively useless.  Because its use resides within the subjective mind of those who care to indulge within its beauty.  And for those who don’t, any harm perceived is only made viable by the internal recesses of one’s own depraved mind.  That is the real threat of art.

Bibliography

Wilde, Oscar.  The Portrait of Dorian Gray.  “The Preface,” Barnes & Nobel Classics (New York: 2003), pages 1-2.

Generation C(ynical)

With the first month of the new year coming to a close, I’m left sensing the same old aroma of destitute oozing from the pores of my generation.  For the longest time I could not trace, or deduce its origin, but its stench rose up with the passing of each year nonetheless.  It’s particularly evident in the restlessness we exhibit towards our relations with the rest of the world.  Our attention span is gradually eroding away, as we become unable to focus on one thing long enough to satisfactory digest any of it.  In turn, we try to substitute this defect by focusing on several things at once, but never registering enough of anything to feel fully content with ourselves, making us dependent on a continuous supply of novel information and content to keep us entertained (often confused erroneously with being happy).  We have by necessity become accustomed to multitasking everything, not as a result of a higher functionality, but out of a never ending search for higher stimuli.  We want to be part of something grand, and we are sure that ours is the era of unparalleled social transformation, but as we look around our search is left unfulfilled by the unimpressive characters that bumble before us to signal the beginning of the new epoch.

There is a banner that hangs above our heads, and it depressingly reads:  “No heroes here to be seen, no glory left for me.”  We desperately want relevance (just check out the wide array of YouTube videos; or even easier, look at the large number of blogs written by individuals eager to share their personality with an audience–including this one), but we have lost interest in the form this relevance can take.  We have given up on the notion of heroes who affirm life, what we desire now are a continuous supply of cynics.  We do not believe that, as a person, as a generation, as a species, glory can be achieved anymore in our social interactions, so we dare not try to even attempt it.  The revolutionary spirit has come to a screeching halt, and the occasional sparks of it seen across the world could very well be nothing more but the reflexive cry of an amnesia afflicted body.

Like our predecessors, we are eager to achieve, to innovate, to create, to socially progress, but we are constantly being told that our ambitions are misplaced; how we ought to look to the past for guidance rather than compose our own future.  Yes, we are being told that the generation that has brought about one of the largest gaps of global socioeconomic inequality in modern history, that has (and continues) to produce one economic blunder after another, whose self-appointed wisdom has left half the globe starved or reeling in anguish, is the generation we need to model ourselves after.  These are the individuals we are expected to emulate as a generation?  The “wise elders” we are to turn to for guidance?  We’d be better off seeking advise from recycled fortune cookies, then this group of chronic failures!  But they keep that banner solidly pinned over our heads, and condition us to believe that we are dependent on their leadership to endure the problems they have created.  And we go along with it, because tradition says we have to respect ancient wisdom, and we cannot violate traditions–can we?  Well, I don’t know about you, but I sure as hell can.  Because I choose to stand under a very different banner, one I have willingly nailed over my own head, and ask no one else to adopt, unless they so choose.  My banner holds no cynicism about the future, in fact it welcomes the coming of new eras, new innovations, new ideas and ideals.  It reads:  “For progress to occur, traditions must die.”

The concept of ancient wisdom is imaginary.  Had humanity always been concerned with being governed by the values of the dead, we’d still be stuck with our ancestors’ superstitious explanations of where the sun disappears to after it sets every night.  We cannot afford to conserve values that hold no relevance to us; we must adapt to a changing scenery, or (literally) die trying.

The Collectivist vs. The Individualist: A Conversation

Collectivist:  “Society cannot exist without the collective effort of the entire group working as a single unit to provide for all members of the population.  And the only fair means by which this system can function is if measures are taken to ensure that all persons within society are given equal opportunity and equal advancement in life.”

Individualist:  “Society is not dependent on the collective effort of its population as a whole to either function or advance forward, but the accomplishments of a select few individuals who are innovative enough to create means and opportunities by which they personally (and society secondarily) benefits from these individual accomplishments.”

Collectivist:  “No man is an island.  And every individual who has ever innovated anything did so through the direct or indirect assistance of a countless number of other individuals who make up the collective of society, and they deserve to share equal credit for the final outcome they helped bring about.  Henry Ford’s automobile would have never been mass produced if it wasn’t for the worker in the assembly line.  Individual innovations are meaningless acts of mental masturbation without the muscle to bring them to life, and the population as a whole are the muscle on which individual innovations depend on to exist.”

Individualist:  “The worker making a living on the assembly line wouldn’t be working and making a living on the assembly line, if Henry Ford hadn’t come up with the idea first.  These groups of people didn’t collective come up with the idea (or any idea for that matter) on how to either make a living, or contribute to society; they depend on the individual to come up with it first.  If a functioning society and productivity is the end result being sought, than individual innovation is still the antecedent that thinks it into life.”

Collectivist:  “But can’t you see that these individual innovators you’re referring to are also an obvious part of the collective population, and thereby also benefit from the collective effort of the group.  Sure, it’s individuals who think up the innovations all of society benefits from, but thoughts are meaningless and useless until they are produced by someone.  And historically that someone has always been the mass populace.”

Individualist:  “Working under the direction of individuals.”

Collectivist:  “Yes.  So what?’

Individualist:  “Without the guidance and innovations of an individual few society stagnates, because the collective population does not collectively create anything beneficial for society.  This is why society values these individual innovators more, and rewards them with a higher rank in its social hierarchy.”

Collectivist:  “A rank earned through the physical work of the people who make the individual innovators’ higher place in the social hierarchy possible.”

Individualist:  “Physical work which wouldn’t have existed without the innovations of these few individuals.”

Collectivist:  “Innovations which would never be realized if it wasn’t for the lowly members of society doing the grunt work to create it.”

Individualist:  “The fact that the other chess pieces play a role on the board in no way invalidates the greater importance of the King in the overall game.”

Collectivist:  “But if no concern is given to strengthening the position of the other chess pieces the King is left vulnerable and exposed.  Important or not, left individually the King is doomed to fall, too.”

Individualist:  “But acknowledging this still doesn’t diminish the higher value of the King in the game of chess.  It is still the King that is held in higher regard than the Pawn, the Knight, or the Bishop.  And it is still the individual that is held in higher regard in society than the collective masses, because individuals are what move society forward.”

Collectivist:  “You’re forgetting that a ladder can’t stand upright without its lowest pegs.”

Individualist:  “You’re forgetting that a ladder is useless if no one ever climbs it.”

Collectivist:  “A world where only the few rise, is a world where opportunity for advancement will seize to exist as the few in power will horde everything for themselves.  What you’re proposing is oligarchy!”

Individualist:  “A world where no one falls, is also a world where no one rises!  If everyone always stays on the same level, there will be no achievements and no advancements.  We can’t all rise collectively, but we can certainly plateau together.”

Collectivist:  “I’d rather plateau as a unit, then watch a minority segment of the population rise at the expense of the majority.”

Individualist:  “And I’d rather watch at least one individual rise above the herd, than have a society made up solely of equally mindless sheep.”

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.