Thursday, March 24, 2011

People don't know what their own traditions are

One phenomenon I've noticed recently in China is that people have many inaccurate beliefs about what Chinese tradition actually is. For example, most Chinese people see it as the most Chinese thing ever to eat rice with every meal. But it this could not have been possible for the mass of Chinese people until perhaps 50 years ago, as white rice, without industrial husking and polishing techniques, was extremely labor-intensive, and would have been too expensive for most people to consume every day. People are slightly more aware that industrial seed oil is not a traditional Chinese thing, as its introduction is far more recent. Yet most people use it every day, partially because the false notion that these oils are healthy, and that animal fat is bad, has trickled in from the United States. (Melissa McEwen has noticed similar things among immigrant populations in Queens.)

In other cases, there seems to be blind adherence to traditions that seem to make very little sense, while embracing potentially harmful aspects of modernity. For example, women in China, after giving birth, typically spend a month at home, during which time they are not supposed to go outside, wash their hair, or brush their teeth. Meanwhile, the majority of births in China occur by C section, and there is increasing evidence that this can be harmful to both mother and child.

All of this leads me to suspect that there is a big problem with traditionalism as commonly practiced. Common practices seem to change without people even noticing. Even the most vehement followers of tradition always adopt some new things, and these small changes can make a big difference.

In the case of food, to be a traditionalist now requires one to actively avoid all kinds of foods, and seeking out the tiny quantities of foods that are produced in the traditional way. In some cases, you have to go back to find out what the traditions actually were. Basically, you have to be a scholar and researcher. It has to be a passion. I think, as innovation continues to accelerate, and the costs of new technologies accumulates*, we're going to see more and more people specializing in the re-remembering of lost traditions. The paleo movement is, perhaps, an example of this.

*I think the benefits of new technologies mostly outway the costs. But the costs they impose are new, and one way we make progress is by learning to deal with the problems that new technologies create. I owe this insight to Kevin Kelly.

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