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Tradition Good. 2 March 2006

Posted by ABD in ABD, Culture, Philosophy.
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by ABD

VARANGALI’s post last week on Cultured Brutes raises the question, “Is tradition good for morality?” I think it is. Sure it curbs thinking, limits individuality and stifles differences of opinion. When you take the long view, however, that’s not all bad.

Let’s start with a small thought experiment. Take a good thing. Anything, really: the best way to cook a pot roast, the name of your next child, a humanitarian ideal. Now make it the subject of discussion for a college seminar, a talk show or a town hall meeting. And watch it die.

Our best schools today do a great job of teaching critical thinking skills. As “intellectual attack dogs” (in the words of a TA), we should be able to swallow, chew and spit out any argument in the book. But deconstruction is only three letters away from destruction. If as a society we are to preserve anything at all, we must have some builders too. Tradition is simply a sign that says: “Stop! Construction underway.”

A second benefit of tradition is the establishment of norms and sanctions to punish variance from those norms. There are serious social consequences (honor, reputation, marriage and business prospects) to sticking out like a sore thumb. While we should resist certain manifestations of this phenomenon (prejudice against your height, complexion or your uncle’s occupation), we would be naive to overlook the value of peer pressure. Human beings are social beings, and our moral lives are tied to our social lives. Water takes the shape of its vessel and all that…

This does not mean that variance from the norm is bad. Far from it. Morality requires navigation between communal wisdom and your personal convictions. But it suffers from too much freedom as much as it does from too little. In fact, tradition seems to create a productive tension without which moral thought is insipid, flat and collapses on itself. I don’t have to repeat the now common observation that living without any rules is unfulfilling (okay, I just did).

Let me close with an unconventional illustration of the point I’m trying to make. In Plato’s Symposium, the character Pausanias argues that pederasty is not really a bad thing even though society frowns upon it. On the one hand, the stigma of homosexuality is strong enough to prevent boys from falling prey to vulgar and unprincipled men. On the other hand, it is just weak enough to allow a virtuous and wise man to persuade a promising youth of the benefits of his company. The city’s customs are in fact simply a mechanism to filter out less deserving lovers.

The strongest individuals are able to live outside the law, and the strongest ideas are able to make it into the canon. But if we just let any lover get through, what would happen to our boys?

As the title of this post suggests, what I am saying here is hardly conclusive. Let’s see if it gets through.

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Comments»

1. VARANGALI - 2 March 2006

Salam,

You make some very accurate criticisms of the tradition-bashing norms we are taught each day. But these norms themselves constitute a culture, of sorts. The general liberalism practiced today carries with it its own set of values, correct behaviors, and nuggets of ignorance. What I meant by bashing tradition was not to embrace this generation’s follies, but questioning as much as we can. And questioning is the antithesis of tradition.

If actions are measured by intentions, shouldn’t we attempt accurate measuring? Shouldn’t we stand before Allah (swt) and say that we tried our best to lead our lives along His path, not the path of our forefathers (hopefully they overlap)? Yes, incessant questioning is both difficult and annoying – and therefore culture has its place.

Culture is insidious when we let it out of its cage, when we let it do our thinking for us. Refinement is a great example: culture teaches us norms that define what it means to be a “gentleman” – at close inspection, refinement only leaves haughty fools who buy into their own false superiority. We must not seek a culture that avoids such traps – they’ll have other traps – we must accept the hand dealt to us, and then mold it with relative indifference to cultural etiquette.

You come close to saying this when you mention that the strongest individuals live outside the law, and culture is dynamic in that the strongest ideas are absorbed by culture. But must we wait for centuries for this process to occur? Per John Maynard Keynes, in the long run, we are all dead – cannot we all be strong individuals and reject cultural norms left and right?

No man is an island and we cannot become hermits. We must deal with culture, for it surrounds us. I just feel that how enlightened we are may be linked to how much we do our own thinking, within the framework of faith, not tradition.

2. The Turk - 3 March 2006

I dunno, Traditions are not loved by Islam. Just because something has traditional value does not make it right. There is issue of dowry in Pakistan/India. Sutee(wife burning after husband died) was a tradition.

I remember talking to Mr. Owen(my history teacher) one time about Islam and religon in general. I had given some books I had read about islam and christianity. He told he read the books and read some other stuff. He however felt the Islam he read in the books and Islam practiced with traditions was different. I told Islam tells you ignore traditions but he said he would have to live with these traditions because he was social animal. He didn’t believe he could live octrazied from group he would be leaving and the group he was going too.

One examples, of traditions gone bad is the god Baal; who was actualy a very good king in the past times. He took care of his people and was loved all around. When he died; his family erected a statue in his honor. First nothing happened, but one day somebody laid flowers on statue. Then poeple used pray there and sometimes get their prayers answered. Then as time past he became a major God.

Traditions are fine and good but must be checked for authentication via the hadis and al-quran. In Pakistan we have some stuff that is not Islam and in the grey area. Like Soyems, Chaliswa’s, Baresee’s(these gathering of people that read the al-quran on 3rd day of death of a person, and then on the 40th, and then each year on day of the death anniversary.

Thats crux of the problem. If we defy these traditions which are often empty and having no meaning; Society cuts us off. If I said I don’t want to do this and I will abstain and I did try to at times, but my father and mother both became angry. Saying stuff when did you get your Ph.D. in Islam etc.

When my grandmother died, I was very upset. Some a#$hole was making a joke in the background and we pouring dirt over her grave. I personally wanted smack the hell out of him. I also have seen people at soyems, chaliswa’s and barsee’s just being chill and are just there to say their obligatory salams. Its an empty tradition to many people are just not respectful of the people who have lost their loved ones.

I’m getting lost on a tangent here. However, the point I want to make is traditions are not always the way to go. You have have to check them against common sense and al-quran and the hadis.


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