March 12, 2020

Balancing Tradition and Progress — On Becoming Cultural Editors

Tradition and progress are in perpetual conflict and today is no exception. Each period of historical tension forces us to ask tough questions about the beliefs we’ve held for a long time and whether they’re worth changing or not. We make the case for creatives becoming the cultural editors of the groups they’re part of.

Generational Habits

Tradition is frequently defined as the transmission and observance of customs or beliefs from generation to generation. These offer, among many things:

  • Continuity: traditions give us at least one way to add structure to our lives. For those of us who don’t live close to family, the holidays still hold gravity that builds anticipation and draws us back to them at key times during the year. What would life be like if we had no traditional holidays or if we stopped commemorating special occasions?
  • Community: many traditions and rituals stem from group interactions and over time, observance of and respect for them can strengthen bonds in a community through shared experiences.
  • Inspiration: traditions are intertwined with history and beliefs that inspire us, our work and our lifestyles. Without them, the absence of traditions or strong connection to them that has led people of this generation to look to the past of their own and of other cultures to fill the void. And where it isn’t necessarily culturally specific, people are also forgoing cosmopolitan big city life for simpler traditional lifestyles.

However, as we’ve seen throughout history that’s echoed itself in today’s events, tradition and the sway that comes with it has drawbacks too:

  • Impractical: many traditions if executed to a tee are time-consuming, laborious or expensive and have since been shortened. Anyone who’s ever supplemented (or replaced) a festive meal with store-bought or delivered food is aware of this.
  • Used for different agendas: the defense of “it’s tradition” or the longing for “how things used to be” has and continues to be used by populist movements to set the clock back on areas that tie into social progress and tolerance. It also goes without saying that many traditions are grounded in beliefs that are problematic.
  • Unpopular: shifting mindsets and priorities have meant people don’t see the value in certain traditions anymore or they’re drawn towards more popular things instead. For one, American millennials are breaking the cycle of leaving and returning to religion after key life events.
  • Unethical: for whatever benefits they may confer, a lot of traditions require committing acts that are no longer deemed ethical such as the preparation of certain foods like shark fin and foie gras.
  • Restrictive: For example, people take up family businesses — or are forced to — in order to “keep the chain going.” This means a person loses their agency and freedom in the name of upholding a legacy. Of course, there are many other more severe and restrictive cultural and religious practices still common around the world.

Put simply, like many of our own personal habits, traditions are “generational habits” that can be helpful or harmful according to not just the people affected but their historical context too.

Traditional vs. Technological

We might not normally think of traditions as innovation, especially with traditional methods or design, but many of them were just that at the time they were invented. Relied upon and reused for enough decades, they become regarded as “traditional,” even if they continue to be useful today. The difference is because of progress, they can be revisited and benefit from:

  • Mass production: mass production means production can scale easily where, for example, essential but rare ingredients at the time might be easier to produce now.
  • Acceleration: many methods once done by hand or with animal labor are accelerated by being done by machines and robots.
  • Stacking: traditional methods can benefit from technological advances in other areas that when stacked together, improve the whole process.
  • Globalization: being able to source expertise, equipment and ingredients from around the world makes it possible to revive certain traditions in places where it’s no longer feasible.

With today’s emphasis on sustainability and doing more with less, researchers and innovators are looking back to the past to rediscover forgotten ways to solving age-old or modern problems — what we might now consider “traditional methods.” The renewed attention paid to our food supply and production that followed backlash against mass production of our food, for instance, has breathed new life into traditional ways of producing, purchasing and consuming food.

These events show us that traditions needn’t always be regarded as permanently outdated once their “heyday” has passed any more than we regard our current methods as the very “best” just because they’re the newest.

The Question of Utility

While we’re discovering traditions that are proving more useful to us than some of the things we can come up with today, this is where we get to the hardest question surrounding traditions and the cultures they influence: do they have to be useful?

After all, most of the actions in our waking life is composed of habits that are not necessarily the most utilitarian — and we know this, but still go about our days anyway. Similarly, we don’t necessarily hold the “best” or purest beliefs that would improve our lives, but we go on believing them and acting on them simply because we’re used to it (and because we’re forgivably human).

Just like us as individuals, cultures still practice traditions that for outsiders, aren’t inherently useful or even make any “sense.” And that’s okay. Just as our quirks make us unique as individuals, the diverse traditions of different cultures make them unique in the greater community of humans.

If we were to only protect and retain traditions based strictly on the basis utility or even enjoyment, there’s a high chance we’d eventually end up with something of a hedonistic monoculture. However, just as we have the individual power to adopt, shape and discard habits, we also have the power as members of a given culture to do the same to traditions new and old.

Our Generation’s Role

Not everything in the past is “backwards” and aspects of it can be more forward thinking than we are now, but at the same time, traditions can also get in the way of progress or worse, attempt to undo it.

Yet abandoning traditional beliefs and methods completely risks us throwing all of our eggs into one basket — even if that means believing solely in science and the objectiveness of reality — which closes off several doors to community, experience and inspiration.

As a generation of creatives that are able to bridge different cultures and subcultures, we have more power to influence the direction of their conversations and movements than we think. Part of our role as members with deep-seated interest and knowledge means we get to decide what mix of values is important to remember and pass on to the next generation — or what’s best left to the history books. In other words, we get to audit and propose “edits” to culture if not embody them ourselves.

As cultural editors, we have to ask ourselves what traditions (and the beliefs that go with them) are worth keeping and which should be abandoned? How can some be updated but retain their character? Which are useful, and which aren’t but we should hold cherish anyways? And lastly, how can tradition and progress continue to work together?

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