Look beyond ‘the traditions’…

We are all accustomed to the bullfight 2that ‘when in Rome, we should do as the Romans’. Generally speaking, this is good advice, for it errs on the side of asking us to respect the customs of our hosts, and this is surely polite and safe.  But what it some elements of this are merely ‘political correctness’?  What if some of the customs and practices that we are asked to enjoin are actually unethical to our way of thinking?

‘Tradition’ is an interesting term which generally conjures up notions of reverence for the past; it is often seen as integral to a threatened culture or society; it is thus a word that acts as a banner to mobilise many when changes are about to be made.  It is a word that generally calls people to act on its behalf.  Yet even ‘traditions’ should be questioned, and although it might seem heretical for a Social Anthropologist to argue this way, all traditions warp and change over time, and all should be questioned to ensure that the values they sustain are ones that a particular society would wish to maintain.

Travel advice frequently encourages us to defer to our hosts, partly to ensure that we gain fully from the experience of being abroad.  Yet there are surely occasions when we need to put our own foot down and draw a line that we will not cross.  Bull-fighting in Spain, for example, has been reduced partly because of the pressure of thousands of tourists who finally said that seeing this ‘spectacle’ was not what they really wanted given the abuse of animals involved.  The debate about fox-hunting in the United Kingdom has elements of this story, a warning that people of every country and culture should examine their own practices closely.  Traditions should not be held to blindly.

One of the problems of being a tourist is that we become eagerly involved when invited to partake in local customs and may forget our moral principles about what we would or would not do at home.  Taking part in an animal sacrifice somehow seems more acceptable when surrounded by local ritual in a new environment than it would in our own back gardens.

Just because we appreciate the desire to maintain and preserve ‘traditions’ in a rapidly changing world does not mean that we have to endorse those traditions that entail animal cruelty.  Nor would we wish to maintain customs that belittle the status of other groups of human beings, by gender, age, colour or sexual proclivity.  Yet sadly, various traditions around the world have maintained elements of such abuse simply because they have never been questioned sufficiently in modern times – to do so seems somehow wrong and impolite.

One question all tourists should consider is, are all traditions sacrosanct? It is one thing to say a tradition should be maintained because it is vital to the identity or culture of a group of people. It is quite another if, almost unwittingly, a tradition is being maintained precisely because it’s a tourist attraction. The Mursi, a tribe who live in the Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia, is a good example here.  In recent years the Mursi have become a huge tourist attraction, especially the women, who are known for wearing lip plates and large earrings. These bodily adornments, mutilate the body and are surely painful. Perhaps we need to consider what we find of value in this tradition and ask, is it one you yourself would perpetuate?

This is not a call for traditions to be harshly criticised or discarded mindlessly; it is simply a call for greater reflection on the part of tourists and tour operators when designing their holiday packages.  No tradition is immune from close scrutiny regarding the values enshrined within its practices. This is a warning that it can become difficult to retain focus when swept up in the moment of some festivity abroad.  It is easy to be swept up in the drama of the moment.  And calm reflection later – having eaten something you regret, or witnessed a kind of gender abuse, or shared in a ceremony dedicated to past war crimes – does not provide much solace or ease the conscience.  As with so many things, planning and organisation are of the essence.  We should think clearly about the opportunities that are on offer to us and always question what is meant and signalled by our participation.

It is a sad feature of many ‘traditions’ that they often entail a celebration of some past ‘crimes’. The apparently innocuous and indeed heart-warming celebration of ‘Thanksgiving’ originally came about in celebration of the deliverance of the founding settlers of America from their trials and tribulations in a new world; that included their ability to suppress and kill many of the indigenous inhabitants of the land.  Spare a thought for how the heirs of such groups feel at ‘Thanksgiving’.  This is not to decry this generally happy family occasion, but simply to note that there might often be more to an apparently ‘good’ tradition than meets the eye.

Tourism provides us all with an interesting opportunity to reflect on ‘traditions’ largely through offering us insights into those of other people. Traditions are seen as having great binding power, as being essential to our ‘identity’ – and indeed this is often the case and is also part of how societies function successfully.  But when abroad, perhaps we should also take the opportunity to reflect on what is good and perhaps less so about the traditions we see around us and which we partake of when at home.

Helen Jennings

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