There is an often unconscious line of thinking I make an effort to avoid using, it’s the one that says because something has always been done a certain way, then that is the only way or the best way it can be done. Or that it should even be done at all!
There are examples of this thinking in different areas of life and in my opinion, it is a formidable enemy of progress.
Many of us can relate to the experience of starting a new job and questioning the way a certain process was done, only to be summarily told that it is done that way because well, it’s always been done that way.
The old “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is an unfortunate logic when applied in many cases because it prevents the exploration of better (i.e. more efficient, cheaper, easier) processes. A process which may have made sense or been optimal at one point in time will probably not continue to be so indefinitely.
When we examine our society, there are countless examples where we do things just because they are “tradition” or because they are the norm, without really questioning the logic behind the actions or ideas, or if there are better ways of going about things.
People who say “I was beaten as a child and I turned out fine, so I will beat my children” are a case in point. Well you may have turned out “fine” (and this is obviously highly subjective) but did you turn out the best that you could be?
Now, I’m not a parent, I don’t plan on being one and honestly I can’t say for certain that I’m against spanking children as a form of discipline; however the reason I hear most people give for why they do, or plan to spank their children, is the one stated above.
Is that really a good enough reason to not learn about other parenting techniques that might help raise a more well-behaved, emotionally intelligent, child?
I’ll use as an another example, the battle for marriage equality. Apart from the religious arguments, an overwhelming argument against gay marriage I have heard is that “marriage has always been between a man and a woman.” My response to that is:
“Ok, and ???”
Is the fact that something has always been a certain way make it fair, logical, sensible or unchangeable?
When we examine issues in gender inequality and sexism, we quickly realize that patriarchy is upheld in no small way by antiquated traditions that society insists on dragging into a future where they make no sense at all.
Countless women change their surnames after marriage, as is tradition, without actually analyzing why they are making a decision to alter such a significant aspect of their identity. This is just one, among other traditions to which women are subjected, and participate in, against their own best interests.
Many dating and relationship practices which only serve to objectify and oppress women are carried on in the name of tradition, upheld by both men and women.
Tradition is integral in what makes societies and cultures unique, even down to the individual nuclear family, yet it also can be and has been a great tool for oppression.
As an African, if I were to begin discussing the ways in which our traditions are harmful to groups such as women and LGBTQ Africans, this essay would turn into a book.
As African countries along with the rest of the world move into the future, various facets of our societies are evolving rapidly, yet we staunchly, stubbornly and violently hold on to ideologies which only serve to uphold inequality and injustice, all in the name of culture.
On this, I’ll simply quote the great Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,
“Culture does not make people. People make culture.”
Culture is not static - we can and should change it.
I briefly mentioned religion above, and although this is a polarizing subject we cannot broach the topic of harmful traditions in our society without mentioning religion.
The essence of religion is based on the acceptance of doctrine which in the case of most dominant religions, were created centuries or even millennia past.
The inflexibility and unchanging nature of religious beliefs and interpretations are what make it such an effective moral guide in a sense, yet on the other hand makes it such an effective tool for oppression.
The idea that you cannot truly challenge the ideas and “rules” written in holy books such as the Bible, not to talk of questioning the motivations and biases of the writers of holy books is a reason I drew increasingly farther away from organized religion as my world view and thinking broadened.
I believe being resistant to change is a characteristic of not just humans but every living creature and undoubtedly has benefits.
By definition, familiarity is comforting yet in the never ending journey to improve as individuals and as a society, we must challenge ourselves and our acceptance of ideologies and practices, not the least of which are cultural norms or traditions.
Behaviors or ways of thinking that made sense in the past may not make sense today - and in many cases if we are honest and critically examine many of these norms, they actually were not born of logic but purely out of a desire to uphold inequities in society.
Words by Beatrice Lyonga