The Value of Tradition (And Challenging It)


I believe it was F. A. Hayek who defined tradition (and I may be paraphrasing here) as those concepts, ideas, or behaviors that have survived undisturbed because they are not sufficiently contra-survival to have died out. The point he was getting at was that even though we may not understand why we do a certain thing, or why we do things a certain way, things evolved that way over time for a reason, and to simply throw it all away because we don’t understand the reason behind it is very foolish indeed.

Truthfully, I am not known for being a very traditional sort of person, at least not in the common parlance of the word. I don’t abide by most of the cultural mores I find around me, and I am the first one to buck the trend if I find that it inhibits me from getting something I want or doing something I want to do. But those who know me well also know that I am a sentimentalist at heart, and I have a fondness for tradition that goes well past nostalgia. I suppose it would be the height of hypocrisy to suggest that when I flaunt tradition it’s for the common weal and when others do so it’s a danger to the commonwealth, but I’ve been accused of hypocrisy before.

Most of our structures, our society, everything we do and live by and with, exists for a reason. We may not understand why or what that reason is, but that doesn’t mean that reason isn’t there. Even something as basic and structural as language is an evolved form of tradition handed down from one generation to the next, and while it is certainly mutable within a few standard deviations of the norm, it is not simply something we can dispose of without regard for what comes next. This is not to suggest we should never challenge tradition; a society that refuses to challenge its traditions stagnates, becomes rotten in the core, and inevitably dies under its own weight. But the challenge should be constructive, with some idea of what will replace those defunct traditions, not a simplistic, nihilistic destruction.

The fact is, most of the time when I see people making a break from tradition these days I see them doing it with lack of foresight. They are not trying to strive toward something, rather than are simply running away from something. Likewise, they are never willing to pay the price for their rebellion; too often the expectation is that there should be no price, that what they want should be the proper order of things, and that they should be rewarded for demanding change rather than being asked to sacrifice to make that change happen. “Gimme, gimme, gimme!” is the cry of a child, not a rational adult, and should be treated in much the same way: ignored at first, and with a time-out if it continues. If and when they decide to grow up and be a part of the broader community, to bring something to the table, to add to the civilized discourse, then we can engage and see what we have to offer each other. The drive to blindly challenge everything without a sense of purpose is simply being a douchebag.

I do have one caveat: teenagers. It is their right, their privilege, and their duty to be douchebags in this fashion. You cannot offer something of value until you know what you have to offer, and to do that you need to know who you are. It is only by striving against anything and everything, by pushing against all that society has and being blasted back in response, that we develop our true sense of self. When that societal pushback comes and scours away everything else, whatever remains and refuses to let go, the part of you that stands defiant against everything and everyone that would change you, that’s what you know is the real you. It is through this process of rebellion that teenagers come out of their parents’ shadow and find their own identity.

The benefit for society is that there are some things that do occasionally, occasionally, need to be challenged on the merits and not be replaced by something new. There are traditions and ideas that have outlived their usefulness (if they were ever useful at all), and it is the responsibility of each new generation to challenge those ideas. It is this sort of pruning that allows our society to continue to grow and brings each generation more fully into the fold.

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3 Comments on “The Value of Tradition (And Challenging It)”

  1. rachel bar says:

    I like the topic and the concept but I think that it would be more relatable (at least for me), if you were to give some personal examples from your life.

    • Bob Bonsall says:

      The sorts of traditions I am fond of are things like chivalry, or trick or treating house to house, or not putting up Christmas decorations until after Thanksgiving (and I plan to expand on that last one in a later post). These are the things that I think make us a better society, not because they are big things, but because they are the sort of little things that, taken together, make the bad things in life endurable.

  2. Interesting post, and quite an important topic. Enjoying your blog, and think (!) you might enjoy reading some of mine http://amonikabyanyuvva.wordpress.com/
    I tend to think a lot, and wish there were more thinking in the world!


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