“Traditional”

Here I go punching way above my weight in anthropology.

I don’t think anyone uses the word “traditional” in the right way.  This is because to me “traditional” always just means  “I’m fooling myself into thinking this is traditional”, making the word impossible to use in any intellectually responsible way except self-referentially, to mean “what other people consider traditional, which they can only be right about in a tautological way”.  All words when you come down to it have an element of conspiracy to their definitions, as meanings are inevitably co-constucted among fluent speakers of a language and not objectively set, but in the case of “traditional” things really rise to a Da Vinci Code level of obfuscation and ideologically-driven incuriosity.  The word practically only exists as a vessel for ideology, with no real-world referents.

We know many things from American culture thought to be traditional are less than 150 years old, not coincidentally straddling the emergence of the modern nation-state and the invention of efficient means of mass transport and communication.  Yet people who should know better suspend this hard-won insight and readily accept it when other cultures assert that this or that practice is really traditional.  Why would we assume things are any different in cultures that think of themselves as older?  A culture considering itself ancient has as much validity as a Wiccan high schooler claiming to have an old soul.

(This is one thing I like very much about US culture – its inability to pretend it’s older than it really is.  Although of course conservatives try to stretch its roots out by referring to it as part of “Western civilization”, and some liberals do the same with Native American cultures.)

A glimpse at recent history should tell you that not only are most modern nations not very old, but the very idea of a modern nation is not very old either.  Modern states can only call themselves old by recruiting into their narrative people who didn’t think of themselves as belonging to anything similar to our current polities of tens or hundreds of millions of members, like the current Microsoft calling itself 60 years old by retroactively labelling Bill Gates’ junior high science fair projects as pre-pre-alpha MS-DOS.

Whenever I hear the word “traditional” applied to things that currently exist in our world, I glean the messages “I think this is much older than it really is” and “I think cultures have changed a lot less than they actually have”, thoughts stemming from a type of historical solipsism that presumes whatever was there when our parents were around has probably been around forever. I know I already feel this way about hippie culture, for example, which seems at least as much a part of traditional American culture as the 2-party system and Secret Santa.  But of course I know these things have origins in the fairly recent past, whereas I think most people who use the word “traditional” for things like Christmas  or bullfighting or kilts imagine the line of these things’ existence stretches back into infinity.

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Fry listens to Sir Mix-a-lot

Sometimes someone I think should know better uses the word and I’m forced to assume either he/she thinks I’m unsophisticated and s/he is trying to “speak my language”, or maybe s/he isn’t as smart as I thought, or s/he is using the word knowing that I won’t take it literally and is paying me a compliment in a way.  In other words I’m forces to try to read whether s/he thinks I’m an idiot or s/he is too.

Things can come to wear the sacred mantle of tradition in a few different ways.  Sometimes things get scaled up to local practice to national tradition.  Whaling, for example, wasn’t widespread in Japan – and when you think about it nothing having to do with the ocean or especially the deep sea could have been part of the experience of anyone living more than a few miles from the beach, so cross maguro off of the traditional Japanese diet as well – but thanks to nationalism and refrigeration it has been promoted from farm team to the majors.  Now everyone in Japan is obligated to defend the hunting practices of a few villages on the southern coast.  A tiny nugget of fact underlies the current notion that whaling has been solemnly practiced by all Japanese people since Amaterasu first stirred up the archipelago from the ocean waters.

Sometimes the habits of the few people rich and educated enough to be remembered by history can become “traditions” of the entire populace, whose ancestors used to be farmers subject to execution if they didn’t fill a quota of grain for their rulers.  Both in the US and in Japan cultural conservatives imagine a tradition of wives remaining in the home tending to the children while the husbands work outside, an arrangement that only could come from a social class rich enough to have only one working member in each family.  Today that effete lifestyle gets held up as the natural way of life for all Japanese people, although it’s as hard as ever for working class families to maintain a samurai family structure.  Using the term “traditional” to describe a situation in which women are more educated than men but far less employed is just trying to hide modern male privilege behind glass and claim it’s too precious to be touched.

The samurai are an example of a powerful minority whose customs became those of the descendants of the people they used to test blades on, but even they had to undergo a bit of scrubbing to be role models for modern people.  Pederasty, for example, is one part of samurai life they apparently forgot when it came time to name the national soccer team.  People of note from ages with customs and morals very different from our own become almost featureless blank canvases of virtue as part of the decontamination process necessary to stand as national symbols for countries where owning slaves is frankly frowned upon.  Traditional role models need to be reborn every generation in order to function as “traditional” role models.

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Killer / Pederast / Fighter / Caste oppressor / Loyal servant / Anti-government rebel  – Good qualities for a sports mascot

So I hope the next time someone suggests to you that a practice, object, figure is “traditional”, I hope you’ll keep these handy questions in mind to deflate any ahistorical puffing up:

  • Was it even technologically possible before the invention of refrigerators, the internal combustion engine, or the telegraph?  How could an entire nation spread over thousands of miles learn about it before the 1900s?
  • In other words, would its proliferation in premodern times require a degree of industrialization that didn’t exist then?
  • Assuming it really existed somewhere, was it in reach legally or financially for anyone besides the nobility? (If not, what did common people use in its place and what happened to their traditions?)
  • If the nobility had it, could it serve some function besides displaying status?
  • Would a farmer (i.e. most people)  see a need for it?
  • Assuming the same name has been used for it for a long time, would the version of it that existed hundreds of years ago and the version of it that exists now be recognizable as the same thing?
  • Would it be more accurate just to say, “this is an important part of our culture now“?
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