The Prison of Custom: The Harmful Effects of Unquestioned Conventions, Beliefs, and Traditions

In one of George Carlin’s last comedy shows before his death, he heavily criticized the idea of custom. Specifically, he criticized the solemn act of swearing an oath on the Bible by essentially presenting it as a stupid and empty gesture:

“Suppose the Bible they hand you to swear on is upside-down, or backward, or both, and you swear to tell the truth on an upside-down, backward Bible. Would that count? Suppose the Bible they hand you is an old Bible and half the pages are missing. Suppose all they have is a Chinese Bible in an American court or a Braille Bible and you’re not blind. Suppose they hand you an upside-down, backward, Chinese Braille Bible with half the pages missing. At what point does all of this stuff just break down and become just a lot of stupid shit that somebody made up?”

The genius of Carlin’s joke – other than the technique, timing, and delivery – is that it highlights both the power of custom to make the absurd seem normal, and the power of symbols and rituals to transform otherwise meaningless gestures into meaningful actions.

Of course, criticism of custom is nothing new. Take, for example, Fallstaff’s criticism of the concept of honor and the accepted notion of being “honorable” from Shakespeare’s Henry IV:

“What is honor? A word. What is in that word “honor”? What is that “honor”? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore, I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon.”

Here, we can clearly see Fallstaff attacking the idea of honor in the same way Carlin attacks the act of swearing an oath on the Bible. For Fallstaff, honor is an empty, meaningless notion which sends people to their deaths for nothing. It is something invented by the powerful which is to be believed and acted upon by the gullible who carry out their orders.

For a third example, we can also look to the 16th century – specifically to Michel de Montaigne’s essay, “Of Custom,” in which he describes the evils of habit:

“For in truth habit is a violent and treacherous schoolmistress. She establishes in us, little by little, stealthily, the foothold of her authority; but having by this mild and humble beginning settled and planted it with tire help of time, she soon uncovers to us a furious and tyrannical face against which we no longer have the liberty of even raising our eyes. We see her at every turn forcing the rules of nature.”

As Montaigne points out, habit is something negative that takes its hold on us gradually and “stealthily” over time. Once it is established, however, we can no longer see it for what it is: as a culturally constructed and tyrannizing force. Instead, Montaigne argues, we mistakenly see custom as something natural – as something “normal.”

Now, to be fair, I don’t agree that all values and customs are automatically bad by virtue of their existence or origin, nor do I believe that all customs are valuable solely for the purpose of social control by institutions of power – e.g. churches, governments, corporations. In fact, I would argue that some customs are necessary and even good for us.

For instance, on the most basic level, customs such as not killing or stealing, and of congregating together to form a family unit or collective community are useful customs in an evolutionary sense because they allow us to live longer and reproduce more often. On an existential level, certain customs are also valuable because they demonstrate a collective attempt to combat the chaotic, indifferent, uncertain, and temporal nature of reality by introducing modes of normalcy, predictability, stability, and permanence.

These, in turn, create a sense of shared identity, social cohesion, and promote notions of human well-being and significance. Therefore, at their root, customs are a kind of biological and philosophical necessity. They represent the human need to survive as well as our desire to leave a lasting impact on our world.

From this analysis, it’s clear that we can’t do away with all customs any more than we can do away with eating or sleeping, precisely because they are methods of being in the word and making sense of that world. However, as alluded to before by Carlin, Montaigne, and Shakespeare’s Falstaff, such customs become problematic when they (a) become too rigid, (b) aren’t allowed to be questioned or explained, and (c) become deeply divisive. In this sense, I believe that an unquestioned custom – no matter how seemingly benign – is always a potentially dangerous one.

The problem with ridding ourselves of harmful customs, of course, is that most of them are so deeply embedded in culture that they can be difficult remove and look at objectively. This is because, as Montaigne points out, the nature of custom is to resist objective analysis, making us blind to its existence. Like a brilliant con artist, custom has a kind of coercive power which lulls us into a quiet submission to ignorance, unconsciously shaping our beliefs and attitudes.

Perhaps the difficulty of this problem is best illustrated by an experience common to all adults – namely, the experience of growing up. As children, we are naturally curious, and are therefore interested in the why of things. Naturally, this lead us to ask many questions about everything ranging from nature to the supernatural.

While at first our initial inquiries are met with enthusiastic answers, after a while our persistent onslaught of questions often ended up producing an annoyed and frustrated response from adults: “Because. However, as we matured, we realized that this wasn’t an answer, but rather a command to stop asking questions. It was the intellectual equivalent of slamming the door in one’s face – a lazy cop-out that served to pacify rather than invite or satiate our curiosity.

Of course, as adults, we all like to think we’ve outgrown this process of discovery and question asking. We like to think that we know practically everything that really needs knowing – all the “useful” things, anyway. We are confident that we can never, ever, be fooled or satisfied by the simple and intellectually bankrupt “Because” as an answer to life’s complicated and difficult questions.

However, the reality of our situation is that many of us have not completely outgrown the “Because stage of our childhood. While we may be more mature, intelligent, and experienced than our former child-selves, this doesn’t mean we always resist the urge to accept things at face value. In fact, we are often discouraged by society from doing exactly that. Therefore, in a strange way, most of us are living in a kind of arrested development – a world full of cognitive shortcuts, intellectual passivity, and simple solutions.

This arrested development often springs from a sense of complacency, apathy, or cynicism, about the state of the world, combined with a general unwillingness to look beyond the immediacy of daily life. In this state, we become comfortable with our jobs, our families, our financial situations, and have learned to dull our sense of curiosity. More and more, we prefer our sense of fixed identity, certainty, and stability to our former sense of wonder about the world. Instead of exposing ourselves to new and different experiences which might challenge us or make us uncomfortable, our default position is to accept things as they are until proven otherwise, especially when those things reinforce comfortable or familiar ideas.

Therefore, I argue that it is during our adulthood – not during our infancy or adolescence – that we are most dangerous. We are most dangerous because we are more free in mind and body than in any other stage, and we are more powerful in terms of the impact our thoughts, beliefs, and actions can have on others. We have the power to free ourselves and others, but also the power to enslave. In this sense, custom – however seemingly benign or insignificant – plays a key role in determining which path we choose to walk – one leading to enlightenment, and the other leading to ignorance.

I think a good, seemingly benign example to start with in our examination is the custom of etiquette – specifically, etiquette as it relates to “table manners.” As a child, I was always highly suspicious of the idea of table manners. It seemed so odd that it made a world of difference whether I was sitting upright or slouching, whether my elbows were at my side or on the table, whether I was cutting or eating something properly, or whether I was doing so with the designated utensil.

As an adult, I feel somewhat vindicated by these early suspicions. While I now recognize the utility of table manners in producing uniformity, familial cohesiveness, and enforcing the values of obedience and personal responsibility, I’m also aware of the arbitrary nature of etiquette, and of its darker potential to needlessly divide one group of people from another based on differing notions of convention – i.e. “the right way to do things.” In this second sense, people may use the seemingly benign custom of table manners not only as a means of education, but as a classist tool to exclude others who are ignorant of it, or who differ in their interpretation.

Assuming that one still accepts “Because” as a satisfactory answer into adulthood, such a person becomes a prisoner of custom, thinking conventionally rather than critically. By perpetuating the logic of the authoritative yet vacuous “Because” from their childhood, they necessarily exclude those who don’t act as they do, transforming those who are different into social “others”.

Once this “other”-ness has taken hold in the mind of the prisoner of custom, it gives them license for creating all sorts of divisive and demonizing categories to further emphasize their higher place in the social hierarchy. In their mind, behaviors which would ordinarily be thought of as different are now thought to be “uncivilized.” From here the categories only get worse, as the negative connotation continues to grow until it has reached a critical mass, eventually resulting in full-blown hatred and contempt for the “other.”

However, if one has learned to look beyond the vacuous “Because,” one can understand that etiquette is simply an arbitrary convention that one chooses to take part in, making the idea of table manners benign rather than malevolent. To go further, if one was able to create a custom of etiquette which is inherently flexible – capable of being restructuring and redefining itself with the passage of time, and without erasing its original spirit or purpose – all would-be malevolent uses of such a custom would be significantly reduced. Moreover, instead of being merely benign, this version of custom would be praised as good because of its inherent ability accommodate differences that might arise.

By keeping our customs flexible while keeping the original spirit and the goals they strive to achieve, we necessarily create a degree of openness and  moral clarity for those who take part in them. In our celebration of such customs, we are forced to reaffirm and reinforce the idea that it is we who control custom, and not custom that controls us.

Instead of being prisoners or slaves to a pre-established system, we are instead able to recognize our agency and our responsibility in shaping and re-shaping that system in order to meet the existential and moral demands of our time. In this way, we remain in keeping with Jesus’ proclamation that “The Sabbath was created for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”

Of course, I realize that the natural reaction to this idea of changing one’s dearly-held custom is to recoil, to become shocked or disgusted, or to simply become angry. This response is understandable – normal even. It is the response one can expect when the inherent fluidity, contingency, and impermanence of language, culture, belief, and tradition suddenly become clear in the minds of those who have grown accustomed to a rigid, isolated, and unquestioned view of them.

However, just because this kind of reaction is understandable doesn’t necessarily mean it is the correct or mature response. In truth, it is an absurd and selfish response which attempts to ignore reality and the people in it in order to feel superior or special. It is the reaction of a spoiled child when they are forced to recognize that the world does not revolve around them, and that they must share their space and their toys with others.

Therefore, as the winter holidays approach it is important to reflect upon what values we are affirming or denying in our celebration of particular customs, no matter how deeply felt or ingrained in our culture they might be. We also should be conscious of the ways we might be unintentionally and unconsciously dividing ourselves from others by celebrating our particular customs, and should seek to be both understanding and accepting of those who celebrate differently.

When we choose to be the masters of our customs rather than slaves to them, we are able to celebrate our core values in a way which unites rather than divides. By viewing custom in this way, we are able to see that there is no such thing as a “war on Christmas” any more than there is a “war on Hanukkah.”

Instead, we understand that the real war is one between human well-being and dogmatic convention – between enlightenment and ignorance; inclusion and exclusion; freedom and slavery. Whether we have the clarity of mind to recognize this and the strength of will to change our understanding of custom in order to make the world a more peaceful, inclusive, and accepting place is really up to us.


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