Saturday, October 15, 2022

We've always done it that way

From Jonah Goldberg's newsletter at The Dispatch, "Hold Your Horses":
In the early days of World War II, Britain struggled to get on a war footing. It had to scrounge old equipment—and the old men who remembered how to use it. They de-mothballed some light field artillery that dated all the way back to the Boer War, fought at the turn of the 20th century. It required a five-man crew, and they found some old vets who remembered the routine. Three seconds before firing the thing, two of the men would move to the side and snap to attention until all was silent again. But no one could remember why they did that. It seemed like useless movement and detail. They finally brought in an old artillery colonel. He watched the exercise for a bit, and then suddenly the memory came to him. “I have it. They are holding the horses.”

Until that moment, it didn’t occur to anyone because the artillery had been towed out by truck. But back in the old days, you had to hold your horses lest they get scared away by the boom. ....
I first read about this story in one of my all-time favorite books, Robert Nisbet’s Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary .... “Persistence, fixity, and the clutching gratefully for habit and convention lie in all areas of thought and action,” Nisbet wrote. ....

“Habit and convention are so native to human beings, as to every other organism,” Robert Nisbet writes, “because all behavior is purposive and adaptive. It is aimed at the solution of problems which beset the person or organization from the environment or from within.” If something works for you, particularly if it keeps you alive, you get attached to it. For a long time in human history, “we’ve always done it this way” was a pithy encapsulation of a survival strategy. This is because an enormous number of traditions and customs were discovered to “work”—or work, without scare quotes—before anybody had a rational explanation for why they worked. Kashrut (Kosherism) is about more than safe eating practices, but the fact that if you stuck to the rules you had a better chance of avoiding bowel-stewing diseases probably helped it take root.

Societies bound together by strong religious commitments survived better than ones that didn’t, all other things being equal. But that rational explanation for religion’s durability—one of many—doesn’t capture the full meaning or importance of religion. ....

...I think one of the reasons our culture is so unsettled these days is that too many people think that offering some superficially plausible explanation for why this or that tradition, custom, or phrase needs to go is enough cause to tear it down. ....

I’ve written about cultural path dependence many times and in many ways. One of my favorite examples is traffic lights. Making “red” mean stop wasn’t an arbitrary decision like railroad gauge widths. But even if it was, and even if you could convince me that we should have made “green” mean stop, it would be folly to change things now. Society has a huge interest in the status quo of traffic lights. Switching them would produce chaos and death. Announcing, almost overnight, that men can get pregnant and all that is the cultural equivalent of switching the color of traffic lights. And when you declare that anyone clinging to the old understandings is a bigot, you’re inviting a backlash far more harmful than the harms currently suffered by a handful of transgender people.

A little respect and humility for the cultural costs—replacement costs, sunk costs, etc.—of treating society like an Etch A Sketch is not merely prudent and not merely moral, but rational. Sometimes there’s a good reason to hold your horses. (more but probably behind a subscription wall)
Jonah Goldberg, "Hold Your Horses," The Dispatch, Oct. 14, 2022.

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