The Tradition of “Tradition”

Normally I’m not one to accept a claim of “we’ve always done it like that” to indicate that that’s the way it should always be done. But as I’m sometimes accused of being religious about sport I can make an exception from time to time.

Take cricket. The problems with cricket in the past were that it took too long and nobody watched it (and after days of play, there might not be even be a winner, but as I’ve said elsewhere, to me this is actually an attraction). To arrest the decline, the cricket authorities introduced a number of innovations, and one-day cricket competitions began in the 1960’s in England. So successful (relatively) were they that nowadays this is by far the most popular form of the game. The length of games has been further reduced, and teams have taken to wearing distinctive brightly-coloured kits with names and numbers. This has culminated in the “Twenty20” competitions which are started and finished within three hours. In parts of the world this has been enormously successful. Cricket is now the second most-watched spectator sport in the world, I’m led to believe. It’s true that this has been led recently from the highly-populous countries of the Indian subcontinent, but interest in cricket, especially this type, has increased even in the UK.

Meanwhile, good old county cricket continues to languish, at least relatively. And I can’t help feeling sad about all this. There’s nothing quite like sitting all day with a warm beer and a sandwich watching Derbyshire County Cricket Club (Not the Derbyshire Falcons or the Derbyshire Phantoms or the Derbyshire Scorpions) get thrashed again at Chesterfield. (I stress that I am not in that picture). Tradition, it seems, has gone to the wall.

However, trying to maintain some perspective, it’s clear enough that cricket couldn’t go on as it was. My own nostalgic views are quite rightly discounted because although I’ve lost interest as a result, cricket has gained, in popularity if not in skill. And we shouldn’t complain.

Similarly, Saturday (May 5) was FA Cup Final Day. When I was a boy this was one of the major days of the year. The game was, domestically, invariably the last one of the season, the streets were deserted as the TV coverage of the build-up would go on for about four hours, and it was always, rain or shine, on a Saturday at 15:00, the only game of the day. For the last few years, the league play-offs have taken place after the cup final, and recently the Premier League final games have, too. This year kick-off was at 17:15 – I presume to fit better into the television schedule. There were other matches on Saturday as well – my own home city club of Hereford United finally lost their place in the Football League despite winning on the day.

I dare say that this is the shape of things to come. As the Premier League and the Champions League grew in importance this was bound to have a detrimental affect on the FA Cup. The winners no longer get a place in their own competition, but have to compete in Europe alongside the teams that finish fifth and maybe sixth in the league. Winning that competition just isn’t that important any more. Chelsea won the final, but on May 19 they have another one, and no-one is under any illusion that the Champions League final is a secondary objective.

While I can remember Cup Final Days of years gone by in a warmly nostalgic light, and maybe express some disappointment about the way that money talks in football these days, I have to accept that things have changed – in some ways for the better, as England along with Spain and maybe Italy have come to be held as footballing centres of excellence. As with cricket, there really would be little point in going back, even if that was possible. Indeed, that would be a retrograde action.

So it seems that in sport what we could class as tradition is only transitory. An old tradition doesn’t last forever when there’s a new tradition waiting to rise up. Or, what we think of as traditions have changed, subtly or not so subtly, perhaps being unrecognisable from a few years ago.  And it follows that we give the idea of traditions, because they come and go, evolve and mutate, more respect than they deserve, perhaps.

When we think of tradition, their transitory nature isn’t what first comes to mind.

1. the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc., from generation to generation, especially by word of mouth or by practice: a story that has come down to us by popular tradition.

2. something that is handed down: the traditions of the Eskimos.

3. a long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting: The rebellious students wanted to break with tradition.

4. a continuing pattern of culture, beliefs or practices.

5. a customary or characteristic method or manner: The winner took a victory lap in the usual track tradition.

Those rebellious students probably never thought they were inventing a new tradition of their own. But this isn’t unusual. Especially as individuals or small groups, we invent traditions all the time. We do something, we like it, we do it again, it becomes a tradition. For example, my son has run the last two Paris marathons, something that I personally wouldn’t be capable of. But we have gone over to support him and already I’m thinking about next spring on the Champs-Elysées. Maybe that won’t happen but hopefully we can make a tradition of it.

All this might seem trivial, and it probably is to some extent. But it also informs us of more general things, and I’m never short of a sporting analogy or two.

It can be seen that when we speak of tradition, what we are speaking of is an inheritance of beliefs, legends, customs and culture, among other things. A “traditional society” is said to be one in which things don’t change much if at all. And things are done according to the beliefs, legends, customs and culture that have always been present. Furthermore, this is in the main held to be a good thing. Although we are often critical of other societies’ cultures and traditions where they differ from our own, there is also a perceived sadness from some when those cultures and traditions are seen to die out, particularly as a result of interference from stronger cultures.

There is some truth in this. Changes are not always beneficial. People are often hurt as a result of coming up against competing ideas and cultures. Moreover, speaking of any society in terms of a culture disguises the internal conflicts within that culture such that it becomes impossible to speak of it as homogeneous. (For example, young-Earth creationism v. theistic evolution.) As I strongly implied here, culture is not a static entity. Instead, although it’s easily possible to identify certain ideas, beliefs and traditions as belonging to a culture this only tells part of the story. Instead of culture being static or linear, culture is a highly complex entity, characterised by constant feedback loops. It is perhaps best characterised by analogy with brain activity as is being revealed by modern neuroscience.

It’s barely possible to appreciate the complexity of the social world and the role of individuals within it and therefore any analysis from me will be of necessity a simplification. Nevertheless, it’s true enough that the world as we experience it has changed to be barely recognisable from that of just a few generations ago. Obviously in part this is due to technological changes. When I was a child I recall getting a telephone in the house, and that in our area this marked us as unusual. Now I can publish a blog post and within an hour someone in Malaysia can read it, and this is a real event. It’s undoubtedly true that technology is driving our culture to some extent, and also that our culture is driving technology, as this demand for communication demonstrates.

As with technology, so with ideas and concepts (and, dare I say, memes). It would be foolish to deny that racists no longer exist. However, the casual racism that I encountered in my youth is a thing of the past and becomes more so with every succeeding generation. And who, apart from a few crazy Christian reconstructionists would support slavery these days? But both racism and slavery could be seen as traditional according to the definitions above. What we call tradition is exposed for what it is, ironically – a transitory phenomenon.

As any financial advisor worth his salt will tell you, things can go down as well as up. The aftermath of the First World War saw a growth in democratic government. By 1939 most of these democracies in central and southern Europe had been supplanted. But the fact that the second war happened at all is due in large part to these changes, which palpably were not for the better. Since that time democracy has re-emerged as an even stronger concept. We certainly are left with important and pressing issues to deal with – anthropogenic climate change, exhaustion of resources, population growth, regulation v. deregulation, inequality and third world poverty, regional famines and potential pandemics, the movement of economic primacy towards Asia, wars, Israel and Palestine, political Islam. It’s often heard said that the problems that we have today – not all of them, to be sure – are a result of cultural changes leading from the abandonment of an earlier culture and a lack of respect for tradition.

But from a rational perspective it’s clear that there has never been a better time to be alive than the early 21st century. We are told by some that we are more individually acquisitive and more selfishly greedy of our status as individuals, yet electronic media is showing that our social networks are expanding, if anything, and not only that, this is what we want. Income per person, in general, has increased, even allowing for inflation, by seven times in the last 200 years, and in that time population has also increased seven-fold, making us as individuals around fifty times as well off as our forbears just eight generations ago. Agricultural productivity has kept pace in that time, bearing in mind that the previous 12,000 years were characterised by agricultural subsistence. In addition, we have become much better at not murdering each other. The cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, meticulously documented the history of violence over the centuries and concluded that “modernity and its cultural institutions are making us better people“. I confess that I haven’t read this book, although I bought it soon after release, as the sheer size of it is somewhat intimidatory, and I’ve merely dipped in and out of it. Even amid the carnage of the mid-20th century, Pinker argues, successfully in my view, that morally-speaking, things have never been as good as they are now. The Somalian farmer or Zimbabwean shopkeeper would perhaps disagree, with good reason, but aside from those basket-case countries, the underdeveloped world is growing at a faster pace than the developed world. I would take issue with Pinker’s comment, notwithstanding the fact that as I said I haven’t read the book in its entirety, that it is the response of cultural institutions to change, including changing themselves and ourselves in the process, in that response, that is primarily responsible for our situation rather than the institutions themselves. But I guess Pinker would agree with that.

So in 2012 we should accept that we have learned better agricultural and industrial methods alongside better ideas. We are where we are today because of our propensity to learn and accept new things and not because we kept to traditional ways of organisation and thought. It’s been a bumpy road so far, though, with more potholes up ahead. Yet there are those that look at the potholes and take a pessimistic view of the future – and because of this, demand that we return to more traditional ways, which, in their rose-tinted view, we foolishly left behind. These are the same people, in many cases, that deprecate slavery and sexism and racism along with the rest of us, while being seemingly unaware of where they got those views. Islam, perhaps, again provides us with the best example. It’s said by Islamists that Muhammad left the Islamic regions with the perfect society, which has since become corrupted. But why would anyone want to corrupt a perfect society? If it’s perfect, then there’s no advantage to anyone or incentive to change it. So how could it have changed? Besides, how anyone who can describe any society in which genital mutilation is commonplace as perfect is beyond me.

We have a lot to learn. We also have to accept that the human project ultimately depends on us getting along in order to survive. So far, especially in the last 200 years we have made quite a good job of it, despite the efforts of some. Part of the challenge is to reject the ideas of those who would appeal to tradition as an answer. It’s because we rejected tradition that we got where we are today. Personally, I’m optimistic that, despite what some might think, we can hand over the planet to people like my sons and scripturesearcher with confidence.

Note 1: if anyone ever considered whether there is a connection between Derbyshire County Cricket Club and genital mutilation then you just read it.

Note 2: Inspiration is a wonderful thing. If anybody wants to understand where Duncan / Tom / Headbutter is coming from, I’ve already mentioned, ages ago, the inspiration I got from Homage to Catalonia, then Football Against the Enemy. There’s another one that I can’t help but count as an inspiration, although it said what I did though better than I ever could. Please read The Jolly Pilgrim.


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