The Myth of Tradition 3

The Myth of Tradition 3

Yesterday we discussed the fact that Tradition is full of foolishness, injustice, and irrationality, in addition to whatever truth it contains. We saw that this situation makes it impossible to justify any particular belief by a mere appeal to Tradition.

Today we will examine the extent to which Tradition can be respected.


How much should we respect Tradition?

Tradition should be respected precisely to the extent that it contains truth and wisdom—no more than that. When Tradition delivers beliefs, principles, and practices that are sound, we should accept them and hold on to them. But when it delivers unsound and unjust beliefs, principles, and practices, we should reject them and develop new ones.

This is really just common sense. If you find out that something you’ve always done is killing you, it’s just not rational to continue practicing that habit. So too with Tradition. If there is a practice that is condoned by a long-standing tradition, but it becomes clear that it is harmful to people either individually or collectively, then that practice needs to be overthrown and a new tradition needs to be established in its place.

There is only one argument against updating Tradition like this, and that’s the argument from stability: Tradition should not be changed too quickly, for people don’t change overnight. Even if a tradition should be changed, it should be changed slowly, for the sake of societal stability.

There is a grain of truth in this. It is true that many people don’t take any change equanimously. And if those people are also belligerent, they can cause a great deal of uproar in society merely because they aren’t willing to change their ways. So there is a bit of qualifying that needs to go on when any major change in Tradition needs to happen. There probably needs to be a phase-in period that will help less adaptable people adjust to the new tradition.

But this argument should not be allowed to become an excuse for retaining an outdated tradition, especially when it is harmful and unjust. Civil rights for minorities had to wait for a century after the Civil War while believers in the old tradition of treating some people as second-class citizens argued for “going slow.” Stability, they said, would be destroyed if people were asked to adopt new traditions of treating everyone like first-class citizens.

But can societal stability be more important than justice? It depends upon the circumstances. If retaining the old tradition does not severely harm anyone, then a slow adjustment period may be justified. If, on the other hand, people’s lives, property, or rights are being violated by the old tradition, then very little weight should be given to the sensibilities of the less adaptable. In this case, the old tradition was always unjust, and it should be removed as soon as possible. The less adaptable will just have to get used to behaving justly rather than unjustly.⁠

(In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King expressed the injustice of dragging one’s feet over a change in Tradition when the change is required for fundamental justice: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” Martin Luther King, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.)

And even if there are circumstances which justify a phase-in period, there should be a clear statement made about the wrongness of the old tradition, and about the length of time it will continue to be tolerated by the decent people of society.

So the bottom line is: any particular tradition should be respected when it is just, beneficial, and rational; otherwise it should be changed, and the more harmful it is, the faster change needs to come.


Tomorrow we will consider the relationship between Religion and Tradition, and examine the question, How much stability does society need?

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