This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Tradition and convention

We have defined tradition, but some additional distinctions will be helpful.

In contemporary parlance, the term tradition has become a pejorative term. It usually refers to any procedure or method or activity that was put in place because it ‘worked,’ or because it made sense to someone at some time and has continued for no other reason than that ‘we’ve always done it this way’. In other words, tradition means for modern people the mindless repetition of something that probably doesn’t have any reason for existing aside from habit or practicality. This usage confuses tradition with something of a different order, which is more appropriately called convention.

Conventions are arbitrary in design and utilitarian in nature. They serve some decided end and are acknowledged as legitimate only insofar as they continue to serve that end. A modern programming language, for example, follows a set of conventions, and these conventions are only valid within that context and can very quickly become superseded by new conventions that are better at achieving the ends the programmers set for themselves.

Likewise, certain behaviors or social practices can be considered conventions because they also were ‘invented’ either by accident or with purposeful consideration only in order to achieve a particular goal within a particular context and are subject to change if the context changes or if a more effective convention is discovered. What we call ‘manners’ are a particular type of convention and, as we all know, are binding only to a certain degree, and can even become silly and harmful if over-emphasized.

A convention, then, is a thing that is arbitrary (anyone can invent one), expendable (can be discarded at a moments notice), and relative (might make sense here and now but may not make sense tomorrow or for someone else).

Given the fact that tradition is often used as a synonym for convention, we can understand the outright disdain shown by many people toward so-called ‘religious traditions’ because these, it is assumed, are simply man-made procedures that ought to have died out long ago. In other words, to the modern mind, traditions are conventions that stubbornly refuse to go away, and, moreover, a society or religion or cultural group that labels itself as ‘traditional’ is essential labeling itself as one characterized by backwardness and a tendency to resist growth and development, clinging to obsolete habits, doing nothing more than ‘holding people back’ or poisoning the progress of religious life or of civilization as a whole with discredited habits or ideas.

In sum, although in contemporary English it is common to refer negatively to tradition, it would be more correct, based on what is usually meant, to speak of convention, which is something of an entirely different order.

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