It's because of

It's because of "tradition" that we're unable to change fast enough to keep up with progressive values like freedom and equality. While mere prejudice can be overcome with better education and time, tradition has its hooks much deeper into our psyche. It's time we threw it overboard and remade ourselves.

Isn’t it Time we Got Rid of Our Traditions?

Anupa and I were watching “The Butler” last week. The opening scene where a white foreman at a cotton plantation casually destroys the life of a young black worker by raping his mother and murdering his father in cold blood (in that order), made me wonder “What year is this?”. 17th century? Even as recent as the 19th century? It couldn’t have been any more recent than that given that slavery was made illegal formally throughout the United States in 1865.

But no. This was set in 1926. That’s just 88 years ago! If this film had any semblance of historical accuracy, it was simply astonishing. How could it continue even after the institution of slavery had ended? The reasons were explained later. How the law and juries never convicted white people committing crimes against blacks. How policemen wouldn’t arrest them.

The film then shifts to around 20 years later where the protagonist works as a butler for white men at a hotel. He has to endure people talking about how it was a disgrace that blacks could go to the same schools as the whites and how intermarriage was unheard of and there should be a law against it. Segregation was of course the normal way of life both in government offices as well as on private property.

The first thing that came to our mind was “This is way worse than the lower castes had it in India during this time”.

Later when his teenage son fights for civil rights in the 1960s, whites dressed in Ku Klux clan sheets burn the bus, they have to endure being locked away by the police, repeated beatings…all for demanding the right to go to the same schools. And the discrimination was open, widely prevalent even in cities and in educated otherwise liberal households.

That was just half a century ago.

We had to pause the film for a while, slack jawed in amazement. The first thing that came to our mind was “This is way worse than lower castes had it in India”. The Indian Constitution outlawed discrimination on the basis of caste right from inception. And while the caste system in India refuses to die down, all things considered I would any day rather be a lower caste in India during this time than be a black person in the United States.

Fast forward 50 years.

The lot of blacks in the US has improved immeasurably. Yes there are still attitudes about them that are prevalent in certain pockets, and yes there is still income inequality. On the other hand, “The Butler” ends with the protagonist watching Barack Obama take the oath of President of the United States just 8 years ago. From a state of total oppression where blacks and whites weren’t even allowed to go to the same schools, travel in the same bus, or go to the same toilets, let alone date and intermarry, there is now an atmosphere that this is slowly dying out. Change happened in one lifetime!

In the US, it’s now extremely impolite to refer to someone’s skin color in a derogatory manner. People still use the word “black”, but not in a bad way. It’s like saying “New Yorker” or Democrat. The word “Nigger” has all but died out. Everyone is extremely politically correct and while some argue that this doesn’t mean anything, I beg to differ. Being politically correct means you know what is right and what is wrong even though you dislike it. That knowledge comes through and passes itself on to the next generation.

And where does India stand in the same time period? People still brazenly talk about caste without any sense of shame. Marriages are openly conducted on the basis of caste. People are still looked down upon. Reservations still continue unabated and are actually growing in steam. Instead of moving to a state where everyone is blind to caste, we’re becoming even more aware of it!

What gives? Why this disparity between emancipation of underprivileged groups between India and the US? The answer in my opinion, is tradition.

In India, many abuses and violations of human rights are justified in the name of “tradition”. There are those who hold tradition even above basic decencies. It’s easy to justify something with a catch all phrase and paint those who want to do the right thing as being “against Indian culture”.

Beliefs and attitudes are hard to change. But tradition is even more resistant to improvement

The US is a relatively new country. As a result, it’s traditions are still forming or are non existent. If anything, factors like Freedom of Expression are now part of their tradition. So while they had the segregation of blacks and the inhuman treatment of slaves, they never called for its perpetuation in the name of tradition. No, they had other excuses. “Blacks are inferior”, “They’re not as smart”, “They’re not full human beings”, blah blah. But these are merely erroneous beliefs which, while resistant to change, can be countered with education, and better knowledge. Prejudice by itself is fragile given that new generations are constantly springing up.

But tradition…no, that is not so easily overcome. As we’ve seen, even the most educated and intelligent people are fully capable of consulting caste when it comes to important matters. The ill treatment of women amongst otherwise intelligent people is justified using the “traditional” argument. If you’re wondering how ignorance and enlightenment can live side by side, look no further than tradition.

Ironically, it is we Indians who puff up our chests with pride while blaring our horns about our great “culture” and our rich history, while being completely blind to the fact that it is in fact our greatest hindrance. We are being held back by customs and practices that would have withered away eons ago were it not for the continual drilling of these “traditions” into the heads of each successive generation. It never gets a chance to die a natural death.

I’ve heard people mock others for being “deracinated” or having been “uprooted from their culture”. The truth is that we have to get deracinated if we want to progress. We have to uproot ourselves and build up again – this time in a new mold. One that more accurately reflects the values of the 21st century. Equality. Freedom. Individuality. Knowledge. These are values that are alien to many aspects of the old traditions and it’s high time we threw them over and created new ones.

Comments

  1. RenKiss says:

    Just to address a couple of points. While I agree that things have improved for Black Americans (mainly as a result of the Civil Rights Movement) there’s still a ways to go. Black Americans still face social inequality in many areas. Not to mention issues like de-facto segregation which is more of a result of redlining. Now we’re dealing with the school-to-prison pipeline and stop frisk. That’s the issue with tradition, the more progress society makes, more people will fight tooth and nail to stop it.

    On the note of “Political Correctness” I’m going to quote Toni Morrison.
    “What I think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define. The definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them.”

    ….and there are a lot of people who don’t like that.

    • bhagwad says:

      I heard about the “stop and frisk” (New York isn’t it?). That’s what happens when you give discretionary powers to people. If I’m not mistaken, the courts struck it down or modified it didn’t they?

      I know that a lot of things need to improve. I just feel that change there is happening faster than it’s happening here.

      • RenKiss says:

        There was a settlement, but the fact is that law targeted mainly African Americans and Latinos, tells me we have a long way to go. I guess for me, I try not to get hopeful too soon because something comes along and shatters that hope. It’s just odd living in a nation that was supposed to be founded on human equality but at the same, tries it’s best to justify why certain races are “inferior.” Anywho, with India though….hmmmm…it’s interesting with your country, I mean, trying to change a system that’s been in place for thousands of years…..yeah I understand why you want change soon. :)

      • dan says:

        All that about the ” stop and frisk” which was in affect in Philadelphia , but yet you say it target’s black and Spanish but yet where I live which is right outside north Philadelphia, white people get targeted more than anyone . The police, especially the black ones , believe that any white people in a poor area must be getting drugs, which I never have done or bought . So this whole racism is still around in America is b.s. , I believe reverse racism is way more prevalent. If a white person says any little thing that has to do with a black person we are a racist . When just cause we are pointing something out no matter what color or ethnic background .

  2. Western Point of View says:

    I know this may be out of topic, but the Civil Rights Act did nothing but allow for reverse discrimination. As a private land owner, a soverign citizen or a private citizen that owns a company/institution (private sector of course), I have every right to NOT hire a black, Mexican, gay, lesbian, transgender, etc.

    The Civil Rights act took that away from me. People can sue me based on discriminatory acts, but isn’t it my right to discriminate?

    I have every right to use the word “nigger” in my private company. If people don’t like it, they should quit and find another job. If someone uses the term “nigger” i have every right to fire them (in my private companY) if I don’t like it.

    Indians have every right to discriminate. THey are soverign citizens. If an Indian has a business, he has every right not to hire a lower caste.

    Such an act prevents mobility? Sorry, that is not my problem nor anyone elses.

    “Equality. Freedom. Individuality. Knowledge”

    Not all people are equal. Men and women are not equal. Fairness, however, or equity is what people should strive for.

    Freedom–people should ONLY be free to the right to life, liberty and property.

    Individuality–I agree, people have the right for individuality, however, if people socially do not accept this, the “individual” in this case has no right to say otherwise even if h/she is discriminated against. Again, if I own a huge piece of land, and you live in it, you can either do as I say or get the heck out. (BTW, i thoroughly don’t believe in the concept of public property. All property should be privately owned).

    Knowledge–there should be no requirement for letting “free” knowledge out. If I know something, I don’t have to tell you what that something is. It is my right to uphold that knowledge.

    Just wanted to add my 2 cents. I know where you are coming from, but the problem in the 21st century are these entitlements: entitlment to a job, to “knowledge,” to not being discriminated against, etc.

    • Balamurali says:

      Spot on ! I cant say how happy I am to hear someone say it.

      • Western Point of VIew says:

        Thank you. I feel that the young kids (although I am also young) feel that going “PC” or treating people “equally” is the way to go. As a human begin, I reserve every right NOT to treat you equally.

        No more entitlement. No more “equality.” Let human beings discriminate as much as they want. Let people not hire lower caste members. If people can’t move up, it is no one’s problem. The market is there, and should not be tampered with.

      • bhagwad says:

        No one’s taking away your right to discriminate. At the same time, others have the right to work towards an equal society. Or do you consider social pressure to be immoral?

        After all, no one’s forcing you to be PC. There’s no law mandating it. So what’s the problem? Why are you talking as if your rights are being violated?

      • RenKiss says:

        So basically you want private corporations to oppress people. Gotcha. I’m glad the Civil Rights Movement pisses you off. ;)

        After all, no one’s forcing you to be PC. There’s no law mandating it. So what’s the problem? Why are you talking as if your rights are being violated?

        People like him just don’t like the idea of someone having equal power, because they feel when one group gets equal rights, it somehow means their rights are being taken away from them.

      • bhagwad says:

        It’s an interesting viewpoint. From a pure “liberal” perspective, a private organization is just that – private. Like you have full control over who enters your house, the argument goes that private companies should have the freedom to discriminate as they choose.

        In my opinion, it’s an example of Samuel Butler’s warning “Extremes are alone logical, and they are always absurd, the mean is alone practicable and it is always illogical.”

        I’d wondered earlier whether temples should be allowed to discriminate based on gender and caste: http://www.bhagwad.com/blog/2012/rights-and-freedoms/should-private-temples-be-allowed-to-discriminate-based-on-gender-and-caste.html/

      • Balamurali says:

        If a private company oppresses people, people have the right not to deal with that company. Social Engineering is dangerous. All he says is, please do not give systemic entitlements to counter bad personal choices. Bad personal choices whither away and die naturally, bad systems create a havoc.

      • Western Point of View says:

        Balamurali is spot on. Social Engineering is dangerous.

        People do have the right not to deal with an “oppressive” company.

        “I’d wondered earlier whether temples should be allowed to discriminate based on gender and caste”

        Absolutely they should. Temples are technically private institutions so why shouldn’t they?

        RenKiss-the reason I don’t like the Civil Rights movement is it takes way my right to discriminate–yes, I have a God given right to discriminate. If I don’t want you in my house, it is my right. I own a company just as I own my house. I have every right not to hire you.

        If I own a restaurant, I have every right not to serve you. I also have a right to make you go to a different “colored only” bathroom.

        BTW, I want to tell you all that I am not white. I am Indian (folks from Gujarat). I am not Hindu either–I am a Muslim.

        Samuel Butler may have that viewpoint, but as a soverign human being and especially as an American, I have the right to be extreme.

        I should also say that if a Black man owns a restaurant and says “no Indian Muslims allowed” then it is his right. He has every right to do this. He owns the restaurant and therefore it is his rules.

      • bhagwad says:

        There is a point to be made that businesses are quasi public institutions and not purely private. They pay a different rate of income tax, have to follow labor laws, provide workers compensation, submit different tax forms etc.

      • Western Point of View says:

        It is a false point of view–an institution is no more public than a private home. If I hire a maid to clean my house, I must also follow labor laws, pay an income tax, a property tax, submit tax forms as well.

        Just because one is taxed doesn’t necessarily mean any institution is quasi-public. If anything, such ways of regulating these institutions is tyranical and invasive. It essentially forces such private institutions to follow such arbitrary laws just to be in business.

        You’ve listed the VERY problems I have issues with in any society–private means private. I shouldn’t have to follow labor laws as long as my employer and my employee agree to certain terms. If h/she doesn’t like those terms, h/she is free to leave under the pretenses of life, liberty and property. Paying an income tax is an invasive way of hindering me to make money. Workers compensation is also a mandate that tells me, a private citizen, how to make contracts with my employees.

        The argument that private institutions are quasi public only works in socialist environments, which the US has become and hopefully will go away from (it has already begun this).

        As a soverign human being, I reserve the right NOT to hire a black man or a gay man in my house to vacuum. It is my personal choice and the government should not invade my being able to make that choice. The same should also apply to labor laws as well as workers comp etc. The government is simply getting in between the terms I have set with my employees.

      • bhagwad says:

        We can debate whether or not businesses should be quasi public or not. And we’re talking about businesses of a certain size – at least as far as the government is concerned.

        But as of now, businesses are semi private/semi public. As long as that distinction is there, hiring practices are subject to a certain degree of regulation. The exact amount varies depending on how courts are willing to interpret the law.

        The issue of whether or not businesses should be private/public is a related, but different topic altogether.

      • Western Point of View says:

        How is a private business any different than your house? Something private is still private, right? Size, shape, all irrelevant.

        Sure, regulation exists, but should we be regulating that kind of stuff?

        Lets put it this way. I have my house. My 16 year old is a member of that house. I pay him an allowance of $20/week. Technically, by BUSINESS regulations since the distinction isn’t being made here, am I not paying him minimum wage?

        As a soverign human being, I have every right to privately enact whatever traditions I want whether that be in my house or my company which hires X amount of people.

        There should be no distinction between anything privately owned. THe distinction you have mentioned above should not be made. Private is private, public is public.

      • bhagwad says:

        Like I said, that is a different topic entirely. The fact is that as long as businesses are treated as semi public entities, they can be regulated.

      • Western Point of View says:

        In that case, a person’s house also falls under the semi public entity domain as well and therefore must be regulated. I guess I can’t pay my kid a $20/week allowance.

      • bhagwad says:

        Your house isn’t open to the general public as a business. And like I mentioned before, this is a separate issue altogether and is only of tangential relevance to this particular post.

      • Western Point of View says:

        It is relevant in the sense that everyone has the right to perform whatever tradition they want in their privately owned institutions–this includes discrimination.

        Perhaps my house is selling lemonade, right? My kids who are 18 years old are sellling lemonade out front. My house automatically is open for business, isn’t it?

        And no business is technically open to the “general public” if it reserves the right to refuse service to anyone as its own tradition, right?

        Aren’t private Golf Clubs run as such? THey discriminate freely and are allowed to do so based on…their traditions, right?

      • bhagwad says:

        I’m saying the issue of whether or not businesses are private is a tangential issue to the question of traditions. It’s a question of definitions. Once you get those down, the rest follows automatically.

      • Western Point of View says:

        In any area in which only “life liberty and property” are the law, then absolutely businesses are private. Anything other than that is a form of Marxist socialism that has no place in a free market capitalist society. Any society which even sees the most remote form of businesses being slightly public (quasi public as you mentioned it) already has socialism intertwined in its governing arena.

        With that in mind, businesses are free to perform whatever traditions they want–including barring lower caste members of society from jobs.

        Like I said, Country Clubs have the right to do this. They actually are allowed to ban people of certain ethnic backgrounds into the Country Club. This maintains their traditions of having only people of X ethnic background. Why can’t other businesses do this? Why are they not allowed.

      • bhagwad says:

        Like I said, that’s a different discussion.

    • mark says:

      Western Point of View, you have one of those racist ignorant mind sets. When I was younger, I hated my skin color. I hated that my white friend seem to never understand or experience anything I was going through. I learned to accept this white man’s world. Time after time I see and hear about things that the white man has done or is doing, doesn’t surprise me anymore. It eventually molds on you, just living your life to do rite, while looking over your shoulder 24/7. My best friend told me he would hate to be black, I couldn’t get mad at him. He was there for me when nobody was but I simply told him…I love the challenge. Oh and by the way, regardless if there is one 2 racist guys out of 10 eventually those two will come around eventually. Never fails

  3. The Bride says:

    I have not watched the movie, but why do you feel it was never this bad in India? Incidents like this are still perpetrated on lower caste people in rural areas. There are still villages in India where Dalits are not allowed to wear slippers and walk through the lanes of upper caste areas, where their women are supposed to be accessible to upper caste men, where Dalit men are murdered and Dalit women are raped to teach the community a lesson. And in cities, as one your commenters said, where upper caste housewives think their lower caste maids are impure and don’t let them into certain parts of the kitchen.

    When the Civil Rights movement was on, Dalits and African Americans saw a lot of similarities in their struggles. Thus, the formation of the Dalit Panthers inspired by Malcom X’s Black Panthers. I still see a lot of similarities in the situation.

    • bhagwad says:

      One big difference in my opinion is that the law itself discriminated against blacks. In India, the discrimination was social (and illegal). But what do you do when the courts themselves refuse to convict a white person of murdering a black person? That is why I feel lower castes in India have it better.

      If you have half an hour or so, try watching the first part of the movie. It’s pretty good.

      • The Bride says:

        The law in India came about 60 years ago. Not sure what the British attitude to atrocities on the basis of caste was. In general, they practiced non-interference and to a great extent adopted caste prejudice themselves.

        Will try to force myself to watch the film. I have adopted a moratorium on movies that have the potential to be depressing.

      • bhagwad says:

        That’s just it. I’m comparing India and US 60 years ago and during the start of that period, the blacks had it worse in every way possible. From that situation we can now compare the two countries and see how things have changed in each. My conclusion is that “tradition” is the culprit, though of course I could be wrong.

      • Western Point of View says:

        The only thing that the Civil Rigths Movement helped with is giving blacks a ridiculous sense of entitlement. Most welfare earners in teh US are either black or hispanic. Have you gone to a black neighborhood? THey are bad places yet they have nice cars parked out in front.

        We have a black president? Big deal. The majority of prison inmates in the US are either black or Latino. People below the poverty line are mostly black or latino.

        There hasn’t been much improvement since the 60s. If anything, the Civil Rigths act has taken away certain rights from private individuals–the right to not discriminate. A private individual has every right not to hire a black person (note i said private).

      • RenKiss says:

        Hey I’m a Black American here, or I guess in your eyes “uppity Nigger.” I said that, because you said “ridiculous sense of entitlement” meaning that I as a Black American should feel inferior and how dare I think I deserve to have rights. Also if you know the statistics that the most people on welfare are actually White Americans. Not that I need to justify anything to you, but I’m Black and quite educated, yes there are many Blacks like me. I know that scares you. :P

      • Western Point of View says:

        I have every right to have a “ridiculous sense of entitlement” as a soverign human beings.

        I never said you don’t have any rights.

        Lets say you open a restaurant called “RenKiss Restaurant.” You own the company. If you say “Indian Muslims are not allowed to dine” that is your rigth. I am an Indian Muslim and I must respect that clause of your restaurant. Also, as a private citizen, I have a right to boycott your activities since you discriminate against Indian Muslims. I can also tell people not to go to your restaurant.

        I NEVER said you didn’t have rights. On the contrary, the Civil Rights Act has TAKEN AWAY people’s rights, including your rights. Big Brother USA does this everyday.

        Think of discrimination as in your house. What if the government said one day you have to allow ALL PEOPLE OF ALL RACE into your house to be politically correct? It is my house, why should the government tell me what to do. Also, why does the government tell me who I can and can’t hire. Its MY company. I OWN it privately. How dare the government tell me who I can and can’t hire?

        Most people that SUPPORT the welfare state are Blacks. It HAS LED to a sense of entitlement. The fact is, white areas are not quite as ghetto (though there are exceptions) to black areas. Westwood is not as ghetto as Crenshaw. That is a fact.

        BTW, if I mucked up the facts about welfare, then I apologize.

        But as a soverign human being, I have every right not to like black people, or Mexicans, or non-Muslims, or gays, or Democrats, or Liberals or whoever. Who are you to tell me otherwise?

    • RenKiss says:

      Just a correction, the Black Panthers were founded by two gentlemen named Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. :)

  4. Balamurali says:

    Bhagwad,
    Caste in India is not as ‘black’ and ‘white’ as we are assume to be. Untouchability too isn’t. We often try to assume the world back in early 1900s or 1800s or 400 AD, was as we had it today. India has a long history, and the rise and fall of various groups of people, races, clans, tribes, castes is an interesting topic in itself. It is our assumption that a backward caste now had always been backward in history. Our whole political and social discourse is biased on this topic, and an unemotional rational discussion is difficult. Actual harmful discrimination in today’s India, is miniscule to what is being projected.

    Coming to your point of “getting rid of Traditions”, the word tradition itself mean that you do something just because it is a norm rather than its purpose. It is difficult to disagree that we should get rid of traditions. The larger point is people should be let free to have their own idiosyncrasies. Ability to discriminate in my private life defines my individuality. The fact that I love somebody is a discrimination against everyone else. I may be a bad person to discriminate on caste, but do let me the freedom to be bad. Making it illegal is much more dangerous to the society, and that is what is happening…

    • bhagwad says:

      I don’t think anyone’s suggesting that it be made illegal to love one person and hate everyone else. Being a jerk is not illegal (and shouldn’t be).

      In a way, getting rid of traditions/caste sets a person truly free to make choices based on their own preferences rather than those handed down by the rules set by people thousands of years ago. If you’re going to have prejudices, let them be your own prejudices!

  5. Boiling says:

    Spot on. I often wonder, if things could change so rapidly in US in 70 years, why can’t they in India? I agree that US has less of a cultural burden to overcome. Sometimes, starting all over has its advantages. Asia & Europe have too much of a cultural burden to overcome. China could overcome it was a result of a strong political leader who broke them down [but that did come with its own disadvantages.]

    • bhagwad says:

      Starting over definitely allows us to discard cultural baggage. The thing is that India was supposed to have started over in 1947 as well. I guess there just wasn’t enough “buy in”.

  6. Better late than never says:

    I have been regularly following your blog but never got down to posting a comment. This post is outstanding and I had to tell you this. Thanks so much for writing down what I always felt strongly about but could not articulate.

  7. A. Madhavan says:

    Excellent post….if you thought “The Butler” was good, wait til you see “12 years as a slave”! It was 1000x better, I was blown away…

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