We do it because we always have.
Posted Dec 18, 2013
The approach of Christmas brings harassment and dread to many excellent people. They have to buy a cart-load of presents, and they never know what to buy to hit the various tastes; they put in three weeks of hard and anxious work, and when Christmas morning comes they are so dissatisfied with the result, and so disappointed that they want to sit down and cry. Then they give thanks that Christmas comes but once a year.
~ Mark Twain
The species Homo has come with many adjectives. Biologists insist on sapiens for the contemporary species (after erectus and various others, now extinct). Sapiens stands for wise, knowing, or even rational. Social scientists, knowing (sapiently) that they cannot dethrone the biological term, have offered a number of alternatives in their efforts to buy currency for their own mini-theories about what Homo is really like. Homo economicus is a – pun intended – household word. It is known to be poor descriptor of Homo’s intellectual prowess, as is sapiens, but it has the power and money of the dismal science of economics behind it (see also Homo ludens, or game-theoretic man). Interestingly, the term Homo economicus was introduced by critics of classic economic theory and especially Mill’s. Psychologists, in fits of biology and economics envy, have invented other homini, of which Homo heuristicus is my favorite; it captures our peculiar double nature of irrationality and adapted wisdom (Gigerenzer & Brighton, 2009). Sociologists have Homo sociologicus (Dahrendorf, 1958), but seriously, Homo sociologicus?
Heuristicus is about reasoning and sociologicus is about playing one’s social role. What about the Homo who lives according to social traditions and norms? There probably is a homo –icus for that somewhere in the labyrinthine literature, but irregardless, I now introduce Homo normaticus to fill this need. Respect for and compliance with social norms is important. It allows society to function and individuals to stay out of trouble. Some social norms coordinate group behavior and even provide fun. Think of the beery dance around the Maypole. Other social norms are destructive. Hazing, for example, may increase group cohesion, but it takes a psychological (and sometimes physical) toll that is difficult to justify.
Social norms are sluggish. They linger when social changes have made them obsolete. They have a certain “we-have-always-done-it-this-way” inertia to the point of ridiculousness when Homo normaticus no longer remembers why he (or she – the femina normatica) acts this way. Take circumcision or Christmas. Since Abraham circumcised himself (and his male servants, no consent needed) with stone tools, Jews and Muslims feel rather strongly about the perpetuation of the practice. The missing foreskin is the mark of the covenant with God. The removal of physical tissue bestows a spiritual gain. But does it bestow a cognitive gain?
In the Judaism 101 class I took, the Rabbi showed us a video of a bris (the circumcision of a Jewish boy on the eighth day of life). The baby was crying with pain and the mother was distraught. Everyone else was joyous. As was the Rabbi. He watched raptly, then turned to the class and asked, “Wasn’t this wonderful?” To me, it wasn’t. I had crossed my legs and contemplated the integrity of the human body. I asked the Rab: “Rab, why cling to the ritual of circumcision, when so many things in Judaism have evolved, changed, or disappeared? Why hold on to this one practice, which is arguably cruel? [It’s not unlike hazing someone who will not remember it.] No matter how far Jewish people move from traditional practice, the circumcision always seems to be the last thing to go.” The Rabbi was dumbfounded. He had no answer. I think the answer should have been, We do it because God told us to. End of story. Strangely, I would have accepted this answer. Instead, the poor Rabbi hemmed and hawed, mumbling something about some things being “trans-rational” (a polite way of saying “irrational”). I found his dumbfoundedness to be psychologically diagnostic. It illustrated the power of traditional norms to control behavior directly. The frontal cortex is not consulted and it fails to insert itself into the action. We do it, dammit, because we have always done it, since Abraham. Reform Judaism left me, the convert, the option to decline circumcision (or its ritual re-enactment), which is astonishing. If converts, whom Jews since Hillel insist are fully equal to native-born Jews, can opt out, why not infants, or rather their parents? Despite my rational objections and embodied cringing at the prospect of getting cut, I went for it after all. Homo normaticus judaicus.
After conversion, I vigorously objected to Christmas. I did not want to be wished Merry Christmas by well-meaning friends and relatives, although I happily wished it for them. Or did I? I noticed that among my friends in Germany and Austria, most of who are secular humanist atheists or beholden to various schools of New Age esotericism, a general love of Christmas prevailed. Christmas, it seemed to me, had become utterly unglued of its Christian moorings. Never mind the fact that the holiday is rooted in the solstice celebrations of Roman times. The holiday’s Roman origins are a matter of amnesia, and its Christian meaning is about to become one. So why do we (they) celebrate Christmas? Because we always have (Wo kämen wir denn da hin!?). This is the similarity to the ritual of circumcision. The difference, of course, is that Christmas is easier to sustain. It keeps coming around year after year. It is a seasonal thing. Circumcision is a life-cycle thing. The big moments are when your sons get circumcised. But how many sons can you have?
For Homo normaticus, rituals like circumcision and Christmas have the potential of becoming their own religions. Religion refers, after all, primarily to the common practices, in which people in a group engage, and not to their beliefs about the origin of the universe, the moral code, and the nature of the divine. For that, we have theology. Many people are effectively practicing the religions of circumcisionism or Christmasism. And why not? Homo normaticus demands norms that allow him to express his hominid nature. Onward then. Light those candles with delight. No guilt required.
Note. The passe-partout word “norm” comes from the precise Latin word norma, which means carpenter’s rule.
Dahrendorf, R. (1958). Homo sociologicus: ein Versuch zur Geschichte, Bedeutung und Kritik der Kategorie der sozialen Rolle. Opladen, Germany: Westdeutscher Verlag.
Gigerenzer, G., & Brighton, H. (2009). Homo heuristicus: Why biased minds make better inferences. Topics in Cognitive Science, 1, 107-143.