Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Inventing Tradition

That shirt is illegal!

That shirt is illegal!

When I was a Boy Scout – many years ago – I learned the proper way to handle and display the American flag. The basic idea was simple: the flag is a symbol and an inspiration.

This simple idea led to numerous rules:

  • You should raise the flag at dawn and lower it at sunset. Never fly the flag after dark. How could it be inspirational if you can’t see it?
  • There’s a very specific way to fold the flag. Don’t lower the flag unless someone is present who knows how to fold it. When folding, don’t allow the flag to touch the ground lest it get dirty.
  • Never disrespect the flag. Among other things, don’t make clothes or jewelry out of the flag. That would convert a symbol into mere merchandise.

In fact, we still have a Flag Code which says, among other things, that, “The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.” In 1968, Abbie Hoffman (pictured), an antiwar protester, was arrested for wearing a shirt made from an American flag.  Such behavior was not only disrespectful; it was also illegal.

Today, of course, we have new “traditions” regarding the flag. Everyone seems to want to show it at all times. We make jewelry and clothing from it. We fly it day and night. While on the campaign trail in 2008, Barack Obama was criticized for not wearing an American flag pin on his lapel. From Abbie Hoffman to Barack Obama, we essentially reversed our “traditional” view of how to treat the flag respectfully.

We invent new traditions all the time. While many traditions  seem to be “the way we’ve always done it”, many are quite recent. As Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger point out in The Invention of Tradition, we tend to invent new traditions, “…more frequently when a rapid transformation of society weakens or destroys the social patterns for which ‘old’ traditions had been designed….”

Hobsbawm and Ranger write that we invent some new traditions by “grafting on old ones” and others by reaching back into “well-supplied warehouses of official ritual [and] symbolism…” and giving new meaning to old symbols. Apparently, this is what happened to the Scottish kilt, tartans, and bagpipe.: “This apparatus, to which we ascribe great antiquity, is in fact largely modern. … Indeed, the whole concept of a distinct Highland culture and tradition is a retrospective invention.”

Why do we invent new traditions when we already have perfectly good ones? We may want to preserve an older, supposedly “purer” set of beliefs and loyalties. Or we may want to draw together in the face of a common opponent. (The Highlands “tradition” was invented in opposition to England).  We may want to divide people between true believers and those who may be untrustworthy. Sometimes, we simply want to slow down the pace of change.

We need to remember to question our traditions. If we simply accept them as they are, then we lose perspective and see an invented history rather than an accurate one. We see only what we’re intended to see. This applies to organizations as much as to cultures and societies. The next time you hear, we’ve always done it this way, just say, “Is that really true? Let’s find out.”

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