I have had great cause to ponder “tradition” lately. I serve in one of the most tradition-conscious branches of the Armed Forces. We are in a presidential election year with its attendant political traditions. It is autumn, meaning a traditional American holiday season is about to kick off with Halloween. And, finally, in what has developed into a really unwelcome personal tradition, I find the words for my pen at 10:00 p.m…and I have to be up at 5:00 a.m. tomorrow!
So what is “tradition” anyway?
If I may be so bold as to suggest my own definition (and this is my blog, so I have that right!), tradition can be defined as “attitudes and actions (customs) that bind and define us as a culture.”
Tradition can be small: a Hispanic family celebrating the Day of the Dead or a family of Germanic descent observing the belief in Krampus. Tradition can be large: the American tradition of presidential inaugurations or the British tradition of crowning a new monarch.
Tradition serves a vital role by guiding new generations in the ways of their predecessors and keeping a culture intact. However, like every aspect of human experience, traditions have to evolve as our cultures and our sense of right and wrong evolves.
In the Navy we observe the “Crossing the Line” ceremony. Thousands of years ago new sailors were brutally initiated into the ways of the sea at certain predetermined intervals. This was to satisfy the gods and test the newbies’ endurance. New mariners who couldn’t handle the hazing were obviously unfit to serve at sea in dangerous waters.
The U.S. Navy’s observance of this ritual (conducted when crossing the equator) was viscous until the end of the last century. Men were beaten, humiliated, and outright brutalized. Some Sailors were severely injured.
As the 20th century closed, this tradition changed. The change was not necessarily embraced happily by all, but then no change is. However, as our Navy redefined its idea of what a professional Sailor is, the idea of brutalizing our own became somewhat ridiculous (to put it mildly). We kept the Crossing the Line ceremony, but the brutality has been left behind. It is still an obstacle course “pollywogs” go through in order to be anointed “Shellbacks” by a senior Shellback portraying King Neptune, but it is largely a fun atmosphere now. Pollywogs still have to sing silly songs, do physical fitness, and even get dunked (no longer in garbage but in water), but no one is brutalized or humiliated. More importantly, today it is not mandatory. Sailors can opt out. The tradition evolved and continues to serve the Sailors of the Navy by defining and binding us, but we are not its slaves.
I mentioned the presidential cycle. Investigative journalism has revealed (on video tape) just how corruptly in bed many large American media outlets are with a specific candidate’s campaign. What makes this cooperation “corrupt” is the tradition of media objectivity. The media largely says its objective…so with that promise we expect them to be objective.
The thing of it is—the tradition of media objectivity is relatively new. As late as the 1950s the media was not considered objective, nor did it bill itself as objective. The media were openly partisan for their favorite candidate, and everyone knew it.
It was during the Watergate era the myth of media objectivity developed. This was partially a cover because much of the media’s targeting of President Nixon was simply based on the fact they hated him…until he went and did something illegal which gave them objective evidence to go after him. Today the tradition of media objectivity is having devastating results because so many Americans do not trust the media anymore.
Why should we? Would you trust someone who advertises apples and then stuffs a pear in your mouth…while telling you that you are actually insane for complaining about the bait-and-switch; that the pear is, in fact, an apple?
This is a tradition that serves no one, but has enslaved many in the media and infuriated the public. How much better if the media openly admitted their personal biases as they did in the past? Public trust in major media outlets was far greater in the past when reporters and editors didn’t pretend one thing and do something else.
The less said about the modern tradition of putting up Christmas decorations in stores before Halloween, the better.
Humanity cannot escape tradition. We need it. Our families need it to create and maintain family identity. We need it as a Navy to help us steer a straight course in dangerous waters. We need it as Americans if we wish to be a shining city on a hill the rest of the world looks up to.
Traditions should serve the people. When the traditions serve us, we are enhanced, defined, and comforted with identity, belonging, and meaning. However, when the people start serving the traditions, the people have become slaves. We The People must be vigilant to ensure our traditions serve us, but we also must be careful not to change or eradicate our traditions without proper cause.
Eradicating our traditions without proper cause can threaten our society’s very existence. However, the converse is also true—not eradicating, or at least not evolving, traditions that no longer serve a vital function injures, demeans, and violates people.
Bucking the culture is always hard. However, it might be the right thing to do, especially if a tradition no longer serves the people but is enslaving them.
We are not meant to be the slaves of traditions. We are meant to be its masters.