“It’s Our Traditional Way of Life”

I was reading about how the Japanese just countered the U.N. Ban on their hunting whales off Antarctica by killing 30 Minke whales off their own coast and their PM swearing to restart commercial whaling.

Despite the fact that whale meat has grown so unpopular in Japan, they have to give it away.

My first response was anger of course. Japan has long been giving the world the one-finger salute over international whaling ban by taking whales for the “scientific purpose” of selling whale meat. In the end, the only defense they have for this and things like the dolphin slaughter in Taiji Cove is “It’s our traditional way of life.”

What a bunch of B.S..

The same argument is being made by communities that mine coal in order to protect the coal industry, despite the number of ecological disasters it causes. Putting Global Climate Change aside, let’s talk slurry spills and the other effects of mountain top removal coal mining.

Yes, it is an industry that exports millions of tons of coal…to China, but the principal defense of coal mining seems to be “It’s our traditional way of life.”

Oh, give me a break…

But then I thought of the post I have in my “Drafts” cue about the Open Carry Twats. It begins, in good conscience, by addressing the unusual passion for firearms in the U.S., trying to find the rational line been responsible gun owners and those hysterics that require guns as an ego prop so much they go into public places to implicitly threaten others with assault rifles. Now, I do believe in the Second Amendment. I was raised in a hunting culture in rural America and I know there are still people who reply on wild game to feed their families. But when I came to the  “armed citizens keep the government from becoming a tyranny” argument, which is the only valid reason why anyone would own an assault rifle, I ran up against the examples of other developed nations with unarmed populaces who seem to keep their countries from becoming tyrannies just fine. Including Japan.

Well, damn.

The only argument for our cultural attachment to firearms I found to fall back on was “It’s part of American culture.”

“It’s our traditional way of life.”

Shit.

“We need to do it because we always did it” is a circular argument, an argumentative fallacy.

The adherence to cultural tradition is one of the most powerful forces in history, America had a Civil War over the “tradition” of slavery after all. The bloodbath of the Protestant Reformation was a war between a new concept of religion vs. the tradition of the Catholic Church.

(And as a side, note, I think it is because the United States has no cultural memory of such a bloody upheaval as the Reformation that we are so tolerant of religious zealotry in our midst.)

And not all traditions are bad. I was discussing with someone that of all the things our culture is not good at, one of the things we got right was our concept of childhood as a protected time, an extended protected time. That seems to be slowly taking hold across the world in cultures where infanticide, child workers/slaves, child soldiers and child brides are slowly being stomped out. Thank the Gods. And Japan has a tradition of public service that would be good for Americans to learn from.

As an Anthropology major (I double majored) I know how vital it is for a people to hang on to a cultural identity. In the U.S. Anthropology and Archaeology have their roots in trying to document the swiftly fading AmerIndian cultures of the Americas. It was incredibly vital to the aboriginal peoples to hang onto their lifeways and cultural identities in the face of genocidal devastation.

But there has to be a certain point where clinging to an aspect of a cultural identity is simply wrong in the harm that it does. Child brides and female genital mutilation, for instance. Antisemitism was a major part of European culture for a thousand years culminating in one of the worst acts of genocide seen in all of human history. America is facing numerous mass murders and yet we can’t move on any form of gun control, even just a background check system that actually works, because of a large part of our society screaming “Guns are our traditional way of life!”

And I know part of the hysteria over gun control is part of the fear many conservative Americans are facing in a changing world.

But life is change.

In fact, I believe the instant a culture tries to freeze itself in time, it is on the decline.

We no longer live on a frontier that requires everyone to own a firearm. So is the ability to walk into a store and walk out with an AR15 an hour later *really* necessary to one’s cultural identity as an American? I am immensely proud of my family’s 379 year history on these shores. I culturally identify myself as an “American” full stop. And I do not own a gun. My cultural identity is not reliant on owning a firearms. It’s bigger than anything I can hold in my hand.

Most things we think of as “traditional” are harmless; holidays, rituals, music, dances and so on. And what is important in all cultural traditions is that they are outward reflection of the inner, innate ideals, beliefs, morals and attitudes of their culture. Things that do slowly change over time, but I think that process does not eliminate them. It refines them. Accepting homosexual marriage does not mean that we no longer believe in the monogamous marriage. It just means we have opened that cultural tradition to everyone. If we enacted stricter gun control laws, that does not mean Americans are no longer a valiant people. It just means that we don’t need to wave guns around to prove it. It means we realized that guns undercut the idea of true courage because any bully can threaten someone with superior force. The brave person is the one that stands up to superior force and says, “No, you are wrong.”

Haven’t we, as a species, advanced enough to be self-aware enough to look at aspects of our culture and see them objectively, to be able to weigh the harm they do vs. the true cultural impact of letting them go? Is our identity as Americans going to vanish because we enact stricter gun laws or stop mining coal? Will the 1500 year old Japanese culture collapse if they stop whaling?

Of course not. A culture is stronger, or at least it should be stronger, than a single outward aspect of its traditions.

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6 thoughts on ““It’s Our Traditional Way of Life”

      • Well, to be fair I was in bed at the time, it’s still not getting any pudding though!
        I couldn’t agree more with your piece here, ‘a traditional way of life’ always sounds like something to be treasured, worth keeping. But it’s too easy to let off bigotry this way. Then there’s the human propensity for violence that, I think, is in the wiring. Humans seem to need aggression to breath, from religious partisanship, to what car they own, to how they drive it. There for all to see is a belligerence, a need to assert themselves that doesn’t go away.

      • Yeah, and when I hear “But it’s our traditional way of life” I know the rational arguments for something have run out.

        I agree that violence seems to be inherent in our nature. 5,000 years of recorded human history and we still have not been able to shake it. And I am not saying that any culture is immune from it. I have even read of battles between Buddhist monestaries. But I think Western societies seem to glorify it more. And not just the cliches of pagan Vikings and such. In A Distant Mirror I read one quote from the 12th century troubador Bertrand de Born, who was an associate, if not a friend, of Richard I, so it was not like he was some nut job on the fringes:

        “My heart is filled with gladness when I see
        Strong castles beseiged, stockades broken and overwhelmed
        Many vassals struck down
        Horses of the dead and wounded roving at random
        And when the battle is joined, let all men
        Think naught but the breaking of heads and arms
        For it is better to die then be vaniquished and live…
        For I tell you I have no such joy as when I hear the shout
        “On! On!” from both sides and the neighing of riderless steeds,
        And the groans of “Help me! Help me!”
        And when I see both great and small
        Fall in ditches and on the grass
        And see the dead transfixed by spear shafts!
        Lords, mortgage your domains, castlee, cities
        But never give up war!

        A different translation can be read here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bertran_de_Born It’s even worse.

        At least Dante gave him some poetic justice.

        Now the whole “glory of the noble knight in battle” thing I knew, but I was shocked at the graphic nature of the passion for violence in this text. Is it really that far from, say, Sin City which also revels in graphic violence?

  1. I will have the pudding that Katy’s tablet was going to get. As for traditions, almost every one of them was new and unconventional at some time. You don’t see cave paintings of men hunting bison with guns. At some stage people had to let go of the tradition of fighting with sharp things, heavy things and pointy things and adopt explodey things as weapons.

    • Good point. Shame that no one seems to realize that at the time. For instance in terms of military tactics, the tradition of the former generation tend to lag behind the technology. WWI proved a tragic case of that as generals threw walls of men at machine guns because that was “how you were supposed to fight.”

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