The Meaning of Anti-Traditionalism

Yesterday was fettisdagen – translatable to Shrove Tuesday  – in Sweden. This day is traditionally the first day when it is allowed to eat a semla (plural: semlor), although nowadays there are, of course, no official ban on eating it before Shrove Tuesday (going further back, fettisdagen was the only day on which you could eat semlor). Even though semlor has been available in grocery stores several weeks before this day, some people still prefer to wait until Shrove Tuesday before they eat one.

This highlights a broader questions about traditions. Is it really rational to honor a tradition if there is no reason to do it other than the fact that it is a tradition? Why, in other words, wait until fettisdagen to eat a semla when there is no rational reason to wait? If you answer no to the first question you can probably be classified as an anti-traditionalist.

Personally, I am a anti-traditionalist in that sense. I see no reason to honor traditions that have no reason behind them. This does not mean that the reason must be very elaborated and foolproof. There might not be any “rational” reason why we should celebrate birthdays, but one might suggest – rightly or wrongly – that it is valuable to have some day where every person deserves some positive attention. It does not have to be the birthday, but since this tradition is established we might as well continue to honor it, rather than change it to some other day.

But there are other traditions where it is hard to find a good reason for keeping it going. Circumcision among atheist jews might be one example. If one does not believe that one must, literally, do it for God’s sake then some other reason for keeping the tradition going is needed. Now some might claim that it is for medical reasons, but I rarely hear Jews invoke that reason (and it would be a strange coincidence if peoples who have traditionally practiced circumcision uniformly praise the medical effects, while others uniformly do not). The most common reason seems to be because it is tradition among their people. The reason for continuing the tradition is, in other words, just the tradition itself.

Now imagine if I were to start a chess club. I would say to the potential members that to be a member of this club one must not only be interested in chess, but one must also chop off one’s left little finger. If people were to ask the reason for this, I would say because this is one of the two distinguishing marks of our association; we are the people who like chess and are missing one little finger, and that’s that. But I assume potential members would ask what the point is of chopping off the little finger. Chess in itself is, at least for potential members of this club, enjoyable or interesting, so it seems like a worthy cause to gather around. But chopping off little fingers only seems arbitrary and meaningless. The club would lose nothing of its substantial enjoyment value if the finger-chopping practice were discontinued.

Why does the traditionalist, then, want to uphold seemingly meaningless or arbitrary traditions? There are probably two main reasons. The first is that they believe that there are reasons behind most “meaningless” traditions that we cannot see. Traditions evolve for some reason, and to presume that we can discern the exact reasons behind this evolution is a sort of intellectual or rationalist hubris. The second reason is that they believe that having distinct groups in society is valuable and that it is good (or even necessary) for people to belong to groups. Exactly what traditions or distinguishing traits these groups have is of less importance than the fact that one must belong to some group in order to be a fully functioning human being.

The evolution thesis is not altogether unreasonable. If there is no obvious harm in keeping a tradition then perhaps we should not question it too hard. But when there is obvious harm in a tradition (for instance the harm of waiting for the semla or the harm of not having a foreskin or a clitoris), these harms should be weighed against the benefits of the tradition; and if no obvious benefits can be found then the tradition should be discontinued. What counts as benefits or harms is, of course, a topic for further dispute, but it is better that these disputes are had in the open rather than silenced because of the shibboleth of tradition.

When it comes to the second reason, it seems to be mostly a question for social psychologists. All I can say is that the view that people need to belong to (arbitrary) groups in that way seems very pessimistic about common people’s rational faculties and ability to embrace a truly individualist lifestyle. Perhaps this pessimism is warranted, but I find it hard to embrace it, since I am such a “rational” person myself. But that only means that you should not take me for an authority when it comes to social psychology.


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