Are traditions necessary to keep culture alive?
- ‘Tradition’ is defined as “a belief, principle, or way of acting that people in a particular society or group have continued to follow for a long time, or all of these beliefs, etc. in a particular society or group.”
- ‘Culture’ is defined as “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time.”
- A 2017 Pew Research Poll found that 45% of Americans “believe that for a person to be considered truly American, it is very important that he or she share American customs and traditions.”
- In 1937, when Gallup polling first measured it, church membership in America was at a high of 73% and remained steady at 70% for over 60 years. The COVID pandemic has since driven church membership to an all-time low, dropping to 47% in 2020.
Traditions are critical for keeping a culture alive. They are a way of passing culture in the form of values and customs from generation to generation. This helps inform us about life in general and who we are as people. Traditions help to reinforce important cultural values, such as a strong work ethic, integrity, the family unit, personal responsibility, charity, care for the environment, or preserving a language. Tradition teaches each new generation of these values, and when you lose that structure, the culture is at risk of collapsing.
Traditions are also important from a psychological aspect, as they're linked to increased marital satisfaction, a better sense of personal identity, improved children's health and academic achievement, better social development, and stronger family relationships. All of this, in turn, helps support a strong culture. A recent American survey revealed that 78% of us believe it is important for schools to teach traditional Western values, which underlines how important most Americans consider traditions to be for our culture.
Traditions can change, and new ones can start. Since the advent of COVID, for example, people have altered traditional gatherings and customs. Nevertheless, traditions in any form provide a measure of stability and balance in our lives that is critical for maintaining our overall culture, especially when everything around us is fast-paced and chaotic. While tradition can seem to be the enemy of progress, it doesn't have to be. Tradition provides a compass to help us navigate in a world of change. Without a compass, the culture is lost. But with a compass, society can accurately choose a direction.
Traditions can be comforting, as they are a connection to our pasts, but they are not necessary to keep culture alive. 'Culture' does not have a rigid definition; it is the combined experience of a group of people and is therefore always changing. As the human rights campaign Breakthrough argues, 'Culture is not static. We don't just passively consume it. We create it. So we also have the power to change it. Culture drives the way we treat each other: what's 'normal,' what's acceptable. And sometimes we need to change that.' No matter what culture, race, religion, or creed someone belongs to, their experience is still an extension of their origins. There shouldn't be pressure for people to conform to certain traditions to prove their identity. No matter what traditions people do or do not practice, their identity is valid.
It is important to pass down the history of oneself, one’s family, or a larger group, but traditions can sometimes feel like a burden. Unfortunately, most cultures have a history of discriminating against women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and others. Graeme Reid, writing for Human Rights Watch, explains 'how discriminatory elements of traditions and customs have impeded, rather than enhanced, people's social, political, civil, cultural, and economic rights.' He says this includes things like 'forced marriages in Afghanistan, virginity testing in Indonesia, 'honor crimes' in Iraq, and marital rape in Kyrgyzstan.'
To move towards a more progressive and accepting culture, some traditions need to be left behind. However, that doesn't mean forsaking our identities and heritage, but adapting them to the times to create new traditions that do not continue the oppression of marginalized groups.