In case you didn’t catch it, the title is referring to a post I wrote before called “Respect Your Own Traditions” – emphasis on “your own” – arguing that Georgians should not selectively demand respect for some traditions while ignoring others.
I meant that somewhat facetiously. I don’t think that anyone should just respect all of their traditions as a package deal, because I don’t think that just being traditional is any reason for a practice to deserve respect. Consideration, perhaps, but respect? No way.
Every generation ought to reevaluate their practices in light of new information and changes in circumstance. For example, if it turns out that smoking is really bad for people, the first people to figure that out for sure ought to make sure that smoking stops. So there’s an argument that people in the 1950’s who smoked didn’t know any better. There’s even an argument that people in the 1980’s should have known better, but that information that challenges ingrained habits just takes some extra time to diffuse through a population and encounters more skepticism or denialism than usual. Fine, whatever. In 2015, if you smoke you pretty much have to know that you are deliberately harming yourself and those around you with no justification, and you are doing it anyway. I know a lot of people who smoke who I like a great deal, but there is cognitive dissonance because I have to hold the contradictory thoughts “I like person X” and “people who smoke are morons and assholes” in my head at the same time. Orwell was right: doublethink does exist.
And this particular nugget relates to Georgia because any time I complain about how much people in Georgia smoke, everyone piles on to tell me that this is Georgia and if I live in Georgia I have to get used to the way Georgian people are and everyone smokes in Georgia and I can’t expect to go somewhere in Georgia without encountering cigarette smoke. Even expats ask me “well if you hate smoking that much, how can you live in this country?”
Sorry, but what? Georgians talk about traditions like Georgian language, religion, feasts, winemaking, hospitality – things that go back thousands of years or more – and in the same wheezing breath they talk about smoking as if this practice *which came from the Americas* is an inseparable and immutable aspect of the Georgian nation.
Actually, there’s nothing Georgian about smoking at all. It’s a shitty thing humans do everywhere, and it’s why I want to retire to a house in the mountains somewhere where I can’t even see my closest neighbor. Unfortunately for now I’m just people who need people, smokers and all, and I won’t be old enough to retire for several decades.
I see why people think that I am always picking on Georgia, but I am not. I just happen to live here. No matter where I lived I would still say that there are traditions that need to be reevaluated, changed, or discarded entirely. There are shitty traditions everywhere. It happens that in New York this is not an uncommon or controversial opinion – Americans know that many of our traditions are shit, which is why hipsters exist and why we put so much currency in appearing to dislike anything popular. Many Americans are so anti-traditional that we get upset if even one other person likes one of the things we like, which is why this exists:
To sum up: in my culture it is not unusual to be anti-traditional or iconoclastic or just generally disagreeable, whereas in Georgia this seems to be taken as a sign of mental illness.
Speaking of my own culture, I like the progress the US has made even since I’ve been gone – since I came to Georgia, that US has legalized gay marriage in many places and marijuana in a few, and these both required the reevaluation of American tradition and I am proud that my culture does this (even as I wish progress would be faster – we still don’t have formal equality for women! WTF America?).
Gay marriage is another good example in support of my point. Gay marriage is not really an adaptation to new information – instead, it’s an adaptation to new circumstances. In particular, the widespread redefinition of “marriage” to a union entered into freely by two parties because of romantic love set the stage for gay marriage since it is clear that while gay people might not be able to genetically combine hereditary property or titles, they can certainly fall into romantic love with each other. There were certainly gay people throughout human history, and there was certainly homosexual behavior (the ancient Greeks serve as a particularly well-documented example) and romantic love between members of the same sex (see Shakespeare’s sonnets, probably), but since marriage was not primarily or fundamentally about the fulfillment of sexual or romantic feelings it wouldn’t have really made sense to advocate for gay marriage in one of those societies. However, in our society it follows logically from our understanding of marriage that it should extend to more than just straight monogamous couples.
In fact I think it’s unfortunate that conservatism and traditionalism delayed the recognition of gay marriage for so long. I know that there is a place for conservatism and traditionalism – society needs some stability and we shouldn’t simply adopt any new idea without giving it a thorough vetting through debate, because it is true that some new ideas are bad ideas just as it is true that some old ideas are bad ideas. However, I think that if liberals and conservatives respected each others roles’ more, these debates wouldn’t have the same life-or-death, us-against-them feel and people would be more likely to embrace (or reject) change as appropriate. Often when I realize that I am wrong, the behavior and attitude of the person who convinced me determines how willing (and how quick) I am to admit my mistake – and I seem to change my mind about major issues more often than most people.
So how about this: instead of respecting traditions, how about we try respecting ourselves, and each other? Your great-great-grandparents may have been awesome people, but they are dead now. We are the living and we owe it to each other to improve the world we have inherited. I wouldn’t want my descendants to try to behave like me – I am no role model even now, let alone in a hundred years – and as a parent and a teacher I sincerely hope and wish that the next generation will grow up smarter and happier and more moral than I did. I certainly don’t want them to repeat my mistakes.
There are probably a thousand ways in which I make the world a worse place – from my carbon footprint to my tendency to get angry in arguments to my meat-eating (I am convinced that it is wrong to eat meat, but like a smoker in the 1980’s, I am not quite convinced enough to give it up, yet) to things I’m not even aware of, and I like to think that if I do my job as a parent and a teacher, some day people who know me will say “well, yeah, he did XYZ wrong, but he was a product of his time”.
I think we have to imagine that our ancestors wanted the same thing for us – or would have, given enough information. I think we have to believe that we are never finished, that there is always something to learn, always a better way. I think we have to believe that the only way to go is up. I think we have to live in the future, and not in the past.
I think Louis Armstrong said it best: they’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know. Why wouldn’t we want them to use that information?
[Video: Louis Armstrong – What a Wonderful World]