What if “traditional” wasn’t used as a catch all term meaning ‘good’ or ‘natural’? (Or, what ‘traditions’ should we vote to perpetuate come Tuesday…?)

If you have been on this planet long enough to learn how to read, you have likely come across phrases such as “It’s tradition” or “We’ve always done it this way, it’s a family/community/religious tradition” or “traditional family.”  In sayings such as these, the word ‘tradition’ is used to indicate something is good, right, natural, worth doing, etc. People say things like, “I will go to my mother’s for the holiday, it’s tradition” or “traditional recipe” or “American tradition.”

While there are many bad traditions, we don’t tend to talk about these things as traditional. For example, it’s quite traditional for many whites to raise their children to be racist and/or deny white privilege. Yet, we don’t tend to speak of the “white racist tradition.” It’s also tradition for boys and men to learn to degrade and objectify women — sometimes they learn this from their fathers, sometimes from their friends, and certainly from popular culture. Yet, we don’t speak of “sexist tradition.” It’s also tradition for the USA to rely on an exploitive labor system and an economic set-up that favors the very rich. Yet, we don’t say “the USA’s traditional to use slave labor” or “the tradition of keeping all the wealth in the hands of white male elites.” We don’t say these things because traditions are assumed to be good, to be things worth keeping.

Lately, the word ‘tradition’ is being thrown around a lot in relation to heteronormative concepts of family and marriage. Here in California, the “Yes on 8” camp (or, in other words, the we support homophobic hate crew) use lines such as “protect the traditional family” or “protect the tradition of marriage.” Here, ‘traditional’ is used as a synomym for “the right kind,” as in, “protect the right kind of marriage, not that crazy gay kind.” Notice that the Yes on 8 crew does not uses phrases such as “support homophobia, it’s tradition” or “it’s traditional to hate and exclude others who are not like us,” or, “save traditional marriage – keep the man in charge and the woman as property.” No, none of these “traditions” are named as such.

And, as a post at Straight Not Narrow notes, the Yes on 8 crowd seems to interpret the need to “keep traditions” quite differently than how Jesus might have characterized tradition. As the post notes, in the book of Mark, Jesus contrasts “the traditions of men” from “the commands of God,” and, not surprisingly, suggests that God’s rules are the ones to follow, not human traditions. Here is the quote from Mark 7:8-9:

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions.”

Now, I don’t personally believe in the bible, but for those that do, doesn’t the way Jesus characterizes tradition here not jibe with how the Yes on 8 crew is using the word? Tradition in the above is characterized as bad, as willful, as going against God. Huh, I may be on to something there. If “the traditions of men” are going against “the commands of God,” then upholding “traditional marriage” (as the Yes on 8 crew is doing) is actually hubris – it is taking the stance that “my tradition” or “my belief” is better than everyone else’s – including that of God, Jesus, etc.

A story about a ballot measure introduced in Olympia, Washington puts the hypocrisy surrounding the “traditional marriage” in stark relief. As reported at the SeattlePI back in 2007:

“Proponents of same-sex marriage have introduced an initiative that would put a whole new twist on traditional unions between men and women: It would require heterosexual couples to have children within three years or else have their marriages annulled.”

Gregory Gadow, who filed the I-957 proposition, claimed the initiative was filed “in the spirit of political street theater” with no real intention to actually put this into law, but rather  “to get this on the ballot and cause people to talk about it.” (See the full story here.)

Such “political street theatre” makes it abundantly clear that “traditional marriage” is touted as a good thing without much analysis as to what this really means. While it is ‘traditional’ for most marriages to result in children, does this mean that marriages which don’t are no longer real or valid?

Ideas surrounding “tradition” also circulate around California’s Prop 4 initiative. The Yes on 4 camp, that would like to limit reproductive rights, uses the platform of protecting “traditional family values.” However, as anyone who doesn’t live with their head stuck up their backsides knows, the ‘traditional nuclear family’ model in the US is rife with heinous and hypocritical ‘traditions.’ For example, the tradition of seeing the women in the family as servants, as property, as items to barter or ‘give away’ to men/future husbands. Or, the tradition of valuing sons more, of putting male’s education/goals etc first. While these traditions are thankfully waning, they are by no means under threat of extinction. If Prop 4 passes (and if the even more draconian Prop 11 in South Dakota passes(see here for more on Prop 11)), the ‘tradition’ of controlling women’s bodies and their reproductive capacities will be strengthened – or, in other words, we will be moving BACKWARDS in terms of equality, social justice, and reproductive freedom.

“Tradition” has also been used in the presidential campaign to promote racism and sexism. As Obama threatens the ‘tradition’ of white male rule, he has been targeted in extremely racist ways that feed on the tradition of white supremacist views that are still prevalent in this ‘free’ country. And, as the sexist coverage of both Clinton and Palin reveals, any woman, even when she is a right-to-lifer, weapon/oil/war loving darling of the right, is framed as a threat to the tradition of male/power privilege.

While some traditions are good, (like calling your dad on father’s day, or eating meals together as a family, or voting!) others, (like sexism, racism, homophobia) are abhorrent. While all people should have equal rights and privileges, equal opportunities, the right to marry if they choose, the right to control their own reproductive capacity, the right to run for office without being targeted by racist/sexist campaign propaganda, all traditions are certainly NOT equally good or right.

Thus, when something is touted as good because it is ‘traditional,’ let us all pause and think about what traditions we want to perpetuate and what traditions need to be axed. The ‘traditional family,’ ‘traditional marriage,’ and ‘traditional leaders,’  are not actually altogether good traditions, but traditions that work to limit access to privilege and power and that disenfranchise women, people of color, and non-heterosexuals.

Up with feminist, progressive traditions and down with traditions of hate! And, please, please consider what traditions you would like to perpetuate when you vote come Tuesday…

2 thoughts on “What if “traditional” wasn’t used as a catch all term meaning ‘good’ or ‘natural’? (Or, what ‘traditions’ should we vote to perpetuate come Tuesday…?)”

  1. On the note of tradition, as a vegan I can’t count the number of times someone’s brought up tradition as a valid reason to munch on high-carbon-footprint corpses. Which is even funnier when most of the time I was violating a tradition by having a veggie burger and talking about sci-fi. How radical of me.

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