Banning “Traditional” – Hidden Power of Words Series, #32

As words, “traditional” and “tradition” conceal far more than they can ever reveal. Their connotations often center around static historical, narrow, privileged worldviews. While an outright ban would probably lack productivity, these words are used in such divergent ways, often with ulterior motives, so as to lack any specificity.

Thoughts about “banning” the word “traditional” came to mind this afternoon while grading Identity papers for my Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies classes. When thinking about the realm of gender, “traditional” tends to have specific uses in society. People talk about “traditional marriage,” “traditional family values,” “traditional church services,” “traditional law,” “traditional schools,” and “traditional skills.”

In each of the aforementioned examples, “traditional” is actually a stand-in for something else–often for whatever people see or believe to be or have been prevailing mores–a coded form of fearing change, of voicing some kind of phobia, of lacking aspects of or even promoting historical illiteracy, of seeking homogenization, or of stopping conversations–a performativity intended to bring unquestioned credibility. 

People could more precisely say the less concise “heterosexual marriage as practiced the last one hundred years in the United States,” instead of “traditional marriage,” for example.

Based on my knowledge of the past, gathered over the past 32 years of life and formally learned and taught for over a decade now, I have come to argue that humans do not actually live by and pass on the “traditional.” Every generation (another problematic term, for another day!) longs for the forgone “traditions” (or what they [falsely] believe to have been) of their parents’ or grandparents’ generations and every generation sees the younger generation as abandoning (what they believe to be) vital traditions and as destroying society. Such circles of life might be the only true traditions!

For example, current celebrations of Christmas in the United States have only existed for about one hundred years. And the specific rituals associated with this celebration (religious and non-religious) regularly evolve: The Elf of the Shelf being one of the most recent evolutions. And if we zoom further out–taking a Big History approach that considers history on the scale of thousands, millions, and billions of years–“Christmas” celebrations have looked very different across time and place. If we zoom even further out and look at “traditional religions” or “pagan traditions,” we begin to see that no such traditions actually exist.

Humans and their institutions change all the time

So when people talk about “traditions” or the “traditional,” what exactly do they mean?

More specific, accurate possibilities without problematic baggage might include custom, ritual, expectation, pattern, habit, cultural inheritance, legacy, or historical baggage. Regardless, considering the rhetoric of “tradition” phraseology is vital when people utilize such diction. 

While I do plan to add “traditional” and “tradition” to the “banned words” list in my “Guide to Writing in Dr. Pegoda’s Classes,” this does not mean I am not allowing the word. Mainly, I want to emphasize that the word “tradition” needs to be used in much more careful, precise, thoughtful ways. By adding it to the “banned words” list, I intend to be funny and serious but not absolute, critical but not dictatorial; thus, why I place “banned words” in quotation marks.

And, certainly, I have “traditions” (a word I find, for intangible reasons, less problematic than “traditional”) with close friends and family that I proudly call such. Maybe such is not the most accurate term, but in our case, it describes the given scenario perfectly–something we do the same way, every time because we enjoy it.

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda