More on Institutions and Traditions

08.17.2012, 3:36 PM

I’m reading the transcript of my conversation with Tim, 26, a practicing Mormon and married father of one child, who lives in one of the new Maytown subdivisions. Typically, when I ask men how they would meet girls when they were single, they often say “through a mutual friend,” or in high school, or college, or through work,  (Almost everyone, it seems, says something like “I know people who meet in bars, but that’s now how I do/did it.” One wonders why I never talked to those people!)

But Tim was the first person, I think, who mentioned “church dances.”

Well, a lot of my friends were from church. And so we had a lot of church activities. We’d have church dances. And way we [my wife and I] met was like a singles activity in Indiana. And so it’s just a bunch of singles from the area — the region that gets together — and they have activities planned and you kind of hang out and meet each other.

Planned activities for singles to meet each other? How many institutions have planned activities for non-college-educated young people, in particular, to meet other singles? I encountered it in the Evangelical Protestant church I grew up in. And I know the Amish have their weekly “singings” at a family’s house,  where the young adults who are “rumspringa” (“jumping around”) meet, and it works incredibly well. But apart from some conservative churches, and very small sects like the Amish, who else does this? One of my friends, who came of age in small-town Wisconsin during an older era (I think it was during the 60s), tells me that the local YMCA hosted youth dances. For some reason, I don’t think the YMCA that’s close to Maytown hosts those anymore. (Though I’m sure they still do at the New York City locations.)

Having attended the church dances, Tim proceed to defy the advice of almost every single person with whom Amber and I have talked: take your time; get to know the inside and outside of a person; live together with them for two, three years, even longer.  Be absolutely certain that you can live with this person for the rest of your life.

“We met in October at that singles ward retreat…. And then we hung out and we got engaged six months later. And four months later we were married. So in ten months we were married.”

It may seem like a foolish decision to a lot of people. But it made sense to Tim.

I think it helps just with us because our core values were pretty the same and so it’s literally like we’ve known each other for a lot longer than just having met somebody at a bar and you have no idea what their standards or their morals or like. And so you already know that it’s possibly somebody that you could create a family with because of that fact…. I think it’s worked out a lot quicker with people that I know that’ve met at church and get married.  It’s a lot quicker.

I mean, I know a lot of people that have dated for six or seven years and they just don’t want to tie the knot.  And I don’t think they have that kind of eternal perspective of what they’re looking for in a wife and they still don’t know if they can trust the person they’re dating to marry them and that they’re gonna stick around.  So for me it’s always been real quick – for people that I know it’s been real quick.

How did Tim know that their core values were the same? And how did he know what those core values were?

Well, I mean, I know how she was raised because I know that she was brought up in the same church.  And our church is – I don’t know, a lot of times I see that churches, from one church to another even if it’s the Church of Christ here in Kentucky or in Ohio – then they teach different things.

Well, our church is maybe a little bit unique in that way that it’s literally – if you’re in Brazil or if you’re in the States, the lesson on that Sunday is exactly the same.  So it’s totally different.  And so because of that I knew kind of what she had been taught.  I knew some of the values, meaning chastity, and we believe in being chaste until marriage and things of that sort.

We follow what’s called the Word of Wisdom, which is basically a code of health.  It tells you what you should and shouldn’t partake of to make you healthy.  So we don’t drink alcohol or coffee or things that are addictive, especially drugs.  So I kind of knew where she was, where she stood on those principles.

And so that made my – I didn’t have to check on that part with her.  I mean, I didn’t have to check on that at all.  I kind of just knew.  And then it left me time to just figure out her personality and if we meshed. [Emphasis mine.]

In other words, the institution of the LDS church and their traditions simplified things for Tim. Many working class young adults in Maytown have no such institutions or good traditions that help guide them in their search for lifelong love. They do encounter bits of “wisdom” — whether through the media, hearsay, family, friends, or however — about love and marriage, that form something of a new “tradition.” But they are left largely on their own to piece it all together and figure it out.

10 Responses to “More on Institutions and Traditions”

  1. La Lubu says:

    Many working class young adults in Maytown have no such institutions or good traditions that help guide them in their search for lifelong love. They do encounter bits of “wisdom” — whether through the media, hearsay, family, friends, or however — about love and marriage, that form something of a new “tradition.” But they are left largely on their own to piece it all together and figure it out.

    I agree with you that young people are left largely on their own (and this is not limited to working class young adults; I’ll get to that in a minute), but disagree strongly that they “have no such institutions or good traditions”. They do. But as I’ve said before, for one reason or another, they are disconnected from those institutions; those institutions just don’t fit.

    I also think you’re mistaking the core necessary element for Tim: it wasn’t just that he has the Mormon community, it’s that he believes in it. Being raised in or around a tradition isn’t enough, on its own. One must believe in it, too. What you’re seeing isn’t a lack of traditions, but a loss of belief. That isn’t something that can be overcome by doubling down on tradition, and encouraging people to go through the motions of traditions they don’t believe in (and may never have).

    Look, we live in a pluralistic society. We see a wide variety of options; even those of us that are working class. We get educated at an early age, and have access to books, television, art, music, the Internet. We’re encouraged to develop our minds (yes, even those of us that are working class). Those are all positive things, and much better than the alternative. But let’s not kid ourselves—it impacts what we view as “our traditions”. And that’s even before we start talking about how our ancestral practices differ from mainstream US ones (Sicilians have always been anticlerical, for instance).

    Now, why this impacts working class young people more than middle class young people: we raise our kids to leave. Not just “leave” as in be self-supporting; leave as in go-somewhere-where-you-can-have-a-future. Because that future? It ain’t here.

  2. Alana S. says:

    Nice post David.
    I agree.

    One of the hard things about being liberal is that the line is always moving. What is acceptable and politically correct one day ceases to be the next, and its hard to know where you have people.

    Relativism is confusing. Relativism breeds anxiety. Relativism may be the reason why you’re scared to marry. You just never know when they’re going to change their mind.

  3. La Lubu says:

    One of the hard things about being liberal is that the line is always moving. What is acceptable and politically correct one day ceases to be the next, and its hard to know where you have people.

    For me, the core of being liberal is comprised of absolute truths, beginning with: the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

    Moving lines occur when previously marginalized peoples become less marginalized, with the end goal being the universal recognition of their inherent worth and dignity. Think of this path as a continuum from “subhuman; must be put to death” all the way to “my brother/sister; all my relations”. To say that any person or community is indulging in “relativism” simply for being unwilling to stop along this path somewhere that would make those currently oppressing them more comfortable, y’know, somewhere short of full humanity, is unfair and untrue. Rather, it is those who are unwilling to recognize the full humanity of marginalized persons that are the authors of those “moving lines”. People do not acquiesce to oppression except by force, and never for long even with that.

    Anyway, I think a lot of that abandonment of traditions starts from that beginning: that the traditions one has been raised with or had the most exposure to do not respect a person’s full humanity. Typically, the answer to this is an appeal to more tradition: “we’ve always done it this way/believed this; someday you will understand.” This isn’t a satisfying answer to people who’ve been taught to question, taught to seek answers on their own. That’s the thing with education and literacy; people use them (including bored working class teenagers who “hate school”—despite that honest sentiment or cool pose, they still dig learning. All humans do.).

  4. marilynn says:

    Alana expand upon the term relativism for me. I’m sure you don’t mean it in the context that I think of relatives. If your not quick about it I’ll go look it up. This seems interesting

  5. nobody.really says:

    Steven Covey, the (Morman) author of Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, had a delightful metaphor about strategies for success: Imagine you’re going to a business meeting in a new town. You’ve got a map. You’re following the map. Alas, it’s a map for the wrong town. What do you do? Advice to “Try harder” and “Have a positive mental attitude” really doesn’t help.

    Moral: Conflicts between your expectations and the world will occur. You need resources and strategies for coping.

    One strategy is to form a team – such as a marriage. But who do you want on your team?

    You can pick someone who is a much like you as possible; that will minimize the extent to which your expectations about your partner will be frustrated. But it will also maximize the extent to which the world will catch your team unprepared – because you have minimized the range of perspectives and skills that your team brings to the world.

    The opposite strategy is illustrated in some buddy movies: get paired with your opposite. Yes, there will be more tension between you, making the team less stable under stress. But your team will have a broader range of perspectives and experiences to bring to the task of coping with the world. In other words, you get more in-group tension, but less out-group tension.

    “Traditional” marriage involved a mix of these strategies: Yes, both members of a couple might come from very similar background. But sharp disparities in gender roles meant that each member of the couple would be expected to bring some different perspectives and skill sets. Gender roles might trample on the individuality of the people involved, but they would facilitate specialization within marriage. Today we have relaxed some of the gender role specialization of the past; this is a boon for individuality, but poses a challenge for team-building.

    A mobile world makes it less likely that any married couple will restrict its interactions solely to people of the same background. It is the rare Minnesota Lutheran couple that goes through life interacting only with other Minnesota Lutherans. Your parents may have grown up in a small town where there was a high degree of homogeneity of perspective – and the most scandalous talk involved whether or not Betty Sue wore pantyhose at the school dance. To find that similar homogeneity of perspective today, ironically, you’d have to go to internet chat rooms.
    For what it’s worth, I did *not* marry my soul-mate, someone whose perspective I can take for granted. I’m a multi-degreed, by-the-rules introvert; I married a first-generation-to-college extroverted entrepreneur. We’re an odd couple, and we disagree about many things. And yet, this is the same pattern my mom followed when she got married. So, in marrying someone not like myself, I have managed to replicating my own home environment. In hindsight, I see that my choice of mate was the most conservative choice I could have made.

  6. La Lubu says:

    Nobody.really: that’s a fascinating answer! I never thought about it that way. Like a lot of working class folks, I was raised to expect a certain degree of crises, chaos and hairpin turns in life’s path as a matter of course….and that oftentimes these aren’t singular events, but are intertwined with other challenges. I was taught to have as many skills in my toolbox as possible (and to welcome any opportunity to learn new skills for the intrinsic worth of adding to the toolbox), and the importance of adaptability. Frankly (especially from my mother and other female relatives), I was taught to triage. I didn’t realize until you made your comment exactly why I always thought too much of a similarity/difference ratio was a negative for intimate relationships…..and now I do. Triage decisions need to have everyone on the same page, with the same assumptions, the same order of operations, the same walking orders.

  7. Alana S. says:


    The doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.

    Relativists are the people always trying to come up with exceptions in which something is wrong.

    If I were to say “third trimester abortion is wrong” then the Relativist would say, “but what about the 11 year old that was raped and didn’t know she was pregnant because she was actually being raised by wolves and her father would beat her to death if he found out” or something like that…

  8. JHW says:

    Alana: I don’t think that’s right. The first part is, more or less, but the second part isn’t.

    Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments don’t admit of objective or absolute truth. To a moral relativist, unlike, say, “A water molecule is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom,” moral judgments are only true within a certain social/cultural/individual context. To a conservative Christian, homosexuality might be wrong, and to a secular liberal, homosexuality might be perfectly morally acceptable, and there’s no absolute standard for who’s right. That’s relativism.

    Almost any moral theory, however, makes distinctions in moral judgments based on circumstances. Killing is wrong—except in wartime against combatants, or in self-defense. Taking away someone’s liberty is wrong—unless it’s done by the state in accordance with the rule of law. Lying is wrong—unless (according to everyone but Kant) it’s lying to the murderer at your door who wants to know where to find his victim.

    Different moral theories disagree, of course, about how, when, why, and which distinctions of circumstance matter. But none of this is relativism. To say that abortion is wrong in Case A but not in Case B is not the same as saying that there’s no culture-independent answer to when abortion is and isn’t wrong. That answer might be general or it might depend a lot on the specifics, but regardless, as long as we think it’s the right answer, the true answer, in the ordinary sense of “right” and “true,” it’s not relativism.

    Liberalism, for what it’s worth, is one of the most anti-relativist ideologies around. That is why liberalism is so often in tension with cultural traditions, and that is why postmodernists hate it. Conservatives sometimes mistake liberalism for relativism because they confuse people’s rejection of their particular account of morality with their rejection of the idea that there is any right account of morality. In fairness, a lot of liberals don’t know any better either.

  9. Schroeder says:

    Thank you for your excellent post, JHW. This is a great summary of relativism. I especially appreciate the last paragraph. The only thing I would add is that I have found quite a few self-proclaimed “liberals” who are also relativists. (I say this as someone who considers himself a liberal but not a relativist, so, obviously, I am not denying the general point of your last paragraph.)

    As an aside, are you a philosopher, JHW? Even when I disagree with you, I think you make your points very clearly and in a well-reasoned manner.

  10. marilynn says:

    That was cool. OK so I believe that people need to live and let live and in order to do that, we need laws that say its not OK to restrict other people from doing their thing while leaving everyone else alone. So to what extent does someone doing their thing interfere with us doing ours? Like if murder is your thing its going to interfere with at least one other person doing their thing. If having a raging party is doing your thing it does not really prevent other people from doing there thing it just makes it less pleasant for them. So then we have to gauge the annoyance threshold.

    Gay marriage does not interfere with other people doing their thing but if a person’s thing is doing ART to have kids, that definitely hinders donor offspring and their concealed relatives from doing their thing. So live and let live. And think carefully about what you believe in. Know why.