If you do a thing often and long enough, you can go around saying it’s what you’ve always done, even though that’s probably hyperbole. If you teach your kids to do it, then you can go around saying it’s a tradition, which is a handy shorthand for “I don’t really think about why I do this any more, but I’ve invested so much time into doing it that I don’t want to have to go around start doing something different now, it would be a real ballache”. For those readers who love their logic but don’t know the words for logic things, this is a classic sunk cost fallacy.
Most of the time you can get away with calling something a tradition because it’s fun or it looks nice. Morris dancing, really big churches with gargoyles and columns and stuff, and chasing rolls of cheese down a hill are all excellent examples of this, depending on your definitions of ‘looks nice’ and ‘fun’. Often, your traditions might be downright silly but nice looking or fun, like morris dancing, really big churches with gargoyles and columns and stuff, and chasing rolls of cheese down a hill. Did you know that in Aylesbury they have an annual Running of the Ducks, ripping off Pamplona’s more dangerous bull-based event but adding a dose of fine English injury-free sensibleness? It’s things like that that make my heart stir with pride for my homeland.
The problem strikes when people mistake the fact that they’ve done something for ages and they think it looks nice for any kind of sensible argument at all. Fox hunting, refusing to let gay people get married and deciding that women should take their husband’s name are all defended under the big banner of tradition, which for some reason has to be the end of the argument.
“Don’t you think that gay couples deserve to be treated by the State in the same way as their heterosexual friends?” you might ask of this imaginary straw man I’ve just conjured up. (That’s logic term number two, there, logic fans who don’t know the name of logic things).
“Oh, yes, of course I do,” replies Jerry Strawman. “But marriage is for straight people, isn’t it? I mean, it’s traditional. You can’t go around changing traditions. Where would we be?”
“We’d be in a place where couples of all possible sexual orientation and combination can enjoy the same rights, responsibilities and protections in exchange for going to the same registry office and paying a flat fee for a certificate and some licensed person to say a few words about love and stuff.”
“Well, that does sound good, but tradition!”
“It’s a stupid tradition,” you can respond.
“Traditioooooooooooooooon!” he’ll wail.
“It’s a tradition that’s making vast numbers of people wildly unhappy,” you can point out.
“Traditioooooooooooon!” he’ll come back with. “If two men get married, who’s going to change their surname? Imagine the logistical difficulty of it! Society would collapse!”
“Look,” you’ll say. “Look, Jerry Strawman. Why do any married couples have to change names? What’s the point in it?”
He’ll moo in response this time. “Traditiooooooooon.”
That’s probably all you’ll ever get out of him, mostly because he’s a fictional construct I’ve knocked together during an episode of Seinfeld, and therefore he’s unreflective of even the most simple-minded opponents of, y’know, clever progress and stuff. But that’s ok, because my broad-strokes point is made. Tradition is dumb, at best. It’s an aesthetic argument.If all we did was cling to tradition, we’d all go around being racists, having more wars and growing our own crops. And I really can’t be having with all the crop-growing. Or the wars. Or the racism. If your pros and cons for doing something are exactly equal, then you can consult The Big Book Of Tradition to see what you should do. Otherwise, throw tradition out of the window. Tradition is just a code word for “we’ve been doing this for so long that we’ve stopped thinking about why.”