Using traditional values and culture as a crutch is a South African pass-time. The National Party were all about those so-called traditional values when they took the freedoms of the vast majority of South Africans. The ANC justify their continued support of archaic institutions as supporting traditional values. And now, even people who should know better are citing that we should return to traditional values. But why?
While tradition has always been used by pundits as something to justify action and to rally supporters behind, there seems to be an increasing call for the protection of so-called traditional values by conservatives and even those who could otherwise call themselves libertarians.
But what are traditional values? Why do they matter? And why should we protect and encourage them?
Succinctly: traditional values don’t exist. They are a transient term referring to any convenient policy that someone wants to advocate at that time. They don’t really matter in a moral or philosophical sense – and only matter as a marketing ploy. And finally, we shouldn’t protect or encourage them.
Now, don’t get confused. I’m not condemning the notion of tradition. Tradition is important insofar as it creates stability and social consistency. It is also, like culture, an inevitability. Condemning tradition is like condemning the weather: A waste of time.
But traditional values are a whole other kettle of fish. While tradition is an anthropological observation of society, traditional values make a moral claim. The claim is that a set of behaviours and principles are the right way to act and live by, because they are traditional.
But why? Why should something being traditional make it more important than something new?
One possible argument is that it has been tried before: An old principle has been proven. And this is a convincing argument. Almost. Principles aren’t something that can so easily be mathematically proven. They are judged by humans, and humans have a habit of judging things differently and oddly.
Despite the horrific failures of communist policy again and again, for instance, people still support its policies. Their judgement is flawed, yes, but they are humans like us. Other humans, even non-communists, can have flawed judgement.
When we adhere to something just because it’s tradition, we fail to realise why we really should adhere to it. Its age doesn’t necessarily make it better. What makes it better should be that it solves a particular problem.
The fundamental problem with invoking traditional values is that it emphasises the wrong thing. What is important isn’t the fact that a value is traditional; what matters should be that a value is good – and therefore it should become traditional.
The practical problems of blindly following traditional values is clear. Many traditions and their corresponding cultures are bad by our other senses of morality.
Sati, the old Indian practice of burning widows alive, was traditional. Stoning gays in Islam is traditional. Banning the actions of consenting adults is traditional in many forms of unreformed Christianity. The refusal to allow property rights to entire strata of society in South Africa is traditional, as seen in the tribal trust lands.
And all of these cases are defended because they are traditional. No matter how damaging they are to society and prosperity.
There are plenty of traditional values and traditions that are just dumb. They’re artefacts of a bygone era and they should remain just that: Artefacts, to entertain historians.
But this doesn’t mean old values are bad. Quite the contrary. Some older principles and values, older than the era which informs todays values, may be better. Or worse. But that doesn’t matter.
Good morality and good policy should not be informed by something as transient and geographically subjective as tradition. Age doesn’t make something right. Reasoned analysis does.
Tradition without analysis and following something because it’s traditional rather than making good things the new tradition is what is holding back South Africa, Africa and the world.
Stop evoking tradition and start using sense.