It’s time to stop excusing cruel, unjust or destructive practices simply because they are traditional.
This week, people from the Faeroe Islands, an autonomous territory within Denmark, hunted down a pod of 1428 white-sided dolphins, highly intelligent social animals. The dolphins were harried for hours by humans on speed boats and jet skis and forced into a shallow bay. Then while each animal lay writhing and listening to cries of distress from familiar members of their pod, the islanders stabbed and sliced them to death with a knife or another sharp implement.
Some island residents and other Danish citizens have condemned the slaughter. One filmed parts of it, or the world would never have seen the chasing and killing in process or the bodies laid out on the beach. But participants and government spokespeople—while acknowledging that the huge number of dolphins slaughtered was unusual—defended the hunt as traditional and “by the book.”
Mass slaughter of cetaceans is definitely a tradition in the Faeroe Islands. Records date the hunting of whales and dolphins to at least 400 years, including the annual festival of butchery that took place this week, known locally as grindadráp. Although extra dead animals may rot—especially this year given the unusual number killed—the meat and blubber are traditionally shared among community members. Generations ago, hunting and killing marine mammals likely was a matter of survival for islanders: lives given—or rather taken—to sustain life. But today the reward side of the equation is simply the thrill of the chase and free food, a very different moral calculus.
The specific violence and victims of this annual bloodbath may be unique to the Faeroe Islands, but the moral mind games used to defend the ritual are not. People around the world and on all sides of the political spectrum seek refuge in “tradition” to justify practices that would otherwise be seen as ethically dubious—violations of human rights or animal wellbeing, practices that inflict avoidable suffering, wanton wastefulness, and other harms. Often the tradition defense gains extra strength by claiming that it is a religious tradition, sanctified by one or another god. (Note: Practices that aren’t harmful rarely need this kind of defense, so when you hear someone invoking a religious or traditional exemption you should look around and ask yourself what or who is being hurt.)
People on the political right tend to claim tradition or religion (aka sanctified tradition) in defense of things that they themselves want to do—spank children, burn garbage, maintain male “headship” of families, keep a neighborhood racially homogenous, attend bullfights, hunt and fish in wildlife refuges, drive 4-wheelers on a fragile beach, circumcise baby boys, light fireworks during a drought. People on the political left tend to claim tradition in defense of actions by non-dominant communities—culturally coerced veiling of women, slash-and-burning of rainforests, child marriage, female genital mutilation, kosher and halal slaughter (without stunning), or hunting whales—or in this case dolphins.
Arguably the ancestral tradition of the Faeroe Islanders didn’t include jet skis, speedboats, or power tools (for the slaughter), but that isn’t really the point. Tradition is a poor defense of cruel or harmful behavior, even when the scale of harm isn’t augmented by modern technologies.
Think about it for half-a-minute:
- Hereditary dictatorships, monarchies, chiefdoms, and other DNA-based aristocracies are traditional.
- Honor killings are traditional.
- Torturing criminals is traditional, as is capital punishment.
- Slavery was traditional, practiced in some form on every inhabited continent.
- Child labor was traditional in the US before it was outlawed, and is still in many places.
- Human sacrifice was traditional across most of the world at one point or another.
- Deforming infants to make them more effective beggars was traditional in some parts of India.
- Drowning unwanted kittens was traditional in the US.
- Cannibalism was traditional in Fiji clear through the 19th Century.
- Purdah (forcing married women to stay isolated and indoors) is traditional across parts of the Muslim world.
The moral message in this list should be obvious: Tradition is a shitty excuse for shitty behavior. Each of us has a right and responsibility to choose which of our received traditions to keep and which to leave—as Christopher Hitchens put it—“in the dustbin of history.”
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.