A First Salvo at the Problem of Culture

 

NPR ran a program just now, at a little past midnight, on their San Francisco channel, KQED. I was listening to News and Notes, a show run by Farai Chideya. According to the website for this program, “News & Notes explores fascinating issues and people from an African American perspective.” I need to get some more information on what I was listening to, but it appeared to be an interview of a medical professional, who, at least some of the time, practices non-mainstream techniques for healing the sick. One example was of knowing how to take the temperature in a more accurate way, using modern technologies, but prescribing herbal medicines if something untoward was detected. The impression I got was that the person being interviewed came from a family or some other lineage of non-mainstream practitioners of the medical profession.

The interviewer (possibly Chideya) asked if the use of knowledge embedded in the doctor’s “culture and tradition” made them wonder sometimes if patients were getting a worse treatment than if only modern methods were used. This got me to thinking about the effect of traditional practices in our lives, and the conflict generated with more modern epistemologies, often Western in origin.

The problem with tradition is that it is simultaneously the abstraction and encapsulation of detailed knowledge that has been acquired over many centuries, and also an excuse for refusing to learn more or to consider alternatives. Tradition is that thing which one does because it’s always been done that way, and also that thing which is done well now because it has been done for so long, that many generations have had the chance to iron out any errors and wrinkles that might have gone unnoticed had the process been subjected to such sustained scrutiny over many years.

The word “tradition” is a very severe example of collapsed categories. The idea of tradition depends on time and space. Almost universally, we agree that what is traditional in one place is not so in another. What is harder to notice is that even in the same place, it is hard to pinpoint when something has been around long enough in the same form, that it counts as traditional. People apply a convenient amnesia to an inconvenient tradition, forgetting enough details about it over time that it fades into oblivion. Most traditions go away because they have been ignored long enough, like an unwelcome suitor whom one never rejects outright but whose calls one never returns.

When a tradition can so easily slip from being established to endangered, and when radically different practices can all appear traditional when considered in different regions, the question is, what validity does the term itself have? Even without the pressures of modernity, the question is, what tradition could we call universal and absolute?

Modernity, in the form of science and individual rights, seems to have proposed an answer in the last few centuries, as the only true tradition that spans the entire human specie. Yet, we have roundly rejected most of the social impact of modernity across the globe. The clearest victory of modernity would have been a politically viable form of socialist government ruling over the majority of the globe that would also have been just and non-totalitarian. Such a utopia has failed to materialize, and present conditions indicate that its arrival is only being delayed, if not cancelled altogether.

Hence, tradition can only be an illusion which the race constructs to give it the consolation of having had a strong past. Without tradition, we feel unmoored from any examples or models that we can look up to as a race. We have to invent our convictions anew with each new generation, and that is a very uncomfortable feeling.

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