Monday, June 06, 2011

Tradition Protects The Younger Generation From Themselves

This is a partial explanation of my affection for G K Chesterton's quote on tradition.

Last week, I stopped by an art supply store to get a gift certificate for my father. The young man behind my counter, who looked to be in his early 20s, had tattoos from his upper arms all the way down to the first knuckles of his fingers. His ears had been pierced with those disks that create large holes in your ear lobes, but the right one had gone horribly wrong and while the left ear lobe was a large, hollow loop, the right one had broken and two strands of flesh dangled down where his earlobe used to be.

In an frenzy of unrestrained self-expression, he had permanently mutilated himself.

I tried to keep up some normal banter with him while he filled out the gift certificate, but about halfway through I faltered and just couldn't continue. The sight of this boy, young enough to be my son, his body polluted and torn, took all my strength from me. I wanted to cry.

This boy had been allowed to make whatever decision he wanted about his body. Society no longer held to traditions of appearance or propriety and did not enforce self-restraint through opprobrium and censure. Instead, each tattoo and each piercing was celebrated as an act of artistic freedom. The end result was a hideous mess. No one had protected him from himself.

The young man recognized the look on my face. As he was finishing the transaction, he saw my eyes go to his mangled ear. He stopped speaking as well and his body slumped a bit. It had all happened before, many times.

Toddlers have one way of hurting themselves and young adults have another. While we make sure little kids wear helmets, live in houses with baby gates and outlet covers, we not only allow, but applaud our young adults when they permanently coat their bodies in childish art and puncture their flesh with various pieces of fishing tackle. I don't think we realized that when we did away with traditional norms of behavior, we were taking down the barriers to self-destruction that kept our younger generation free to make choices later in life.


Kelly the little black dog said...

No one had protected him from himself. Sounds like big government to me! ;)

It is very hard when the parents of these kids have tattoos themselves. Perhaps they go further since the parents have already crossed the line. Body modification isn't a particularly new thing. What has changed is that no effort is made to put it where its hidden. I was in a doctors office last week and noticed that the head nurse, a very beautiful young lady, had a rather large tattoo peaking out from under her long sleeves. She could hide it for her good professional job, but just barely.

I do wonder if this trend will run its course or just continue.

John Travolta said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it sounds like you want to be able to dictate what other adults are allowed to do and say, simply because you claim to know what's best for them better than they know that for themselves.

Banshee said...

The whole point of society is for humans to band together, to protect each other and their children. The US Constitution is quite explicit about various sorts of support and protection, including "promote the general welfare". Things are not faring well for the general population, that's what she's saying.

The good news is that earlobes do grow back together, and that any plastic surgeon will be able to fix it up in two shakes once he gets the money together.

K T Cat said...

Question: Why don't people put their cigarettes out on their arms?

John Travolta said...

(You present a flawed analogy, but I'll bite anyway. I'll simply mention that, unlike cigarettes-on-the-arm, there are countless people who enjoy and find meaning in tattoos and piercings, and are still perfectly capable of being healthy, productive members of society)

Answer: It's painful, harmful to the skin, and there are countless better ways to extinguish a cigarette.

Question: Since it's trivial to demonstrate that putting cigarettes out on ones arm is harmful, should we not therefore pass laws and spend tax dollars in order to prevent people from putting out cigarettes on their arms? In order to protect people from themselves?

K T Cat said...

Answer: You don't put cigarettes out on your arm because it hurts in the here and now. The pain of getting hideous tattoos and piercings are balanced by the temporary acceptance and approval of your peers. Social opprobrium of the sort one found in the past about tattoos and multiple piercings served the same purpose as the pain of being burned by the cigarette. It provided an immediate deterrent for the action.

Not everyone is capable of seeing the future of their actions. I've become convinced that traditions served as guard rails for just such people, a way of giving them the immediate negative feedback they needed to keep them from doing something that would only seem horribly stupid with the advantage of foresight.

Not everyone possesses foresight. Such people, in the absence of traditions of behavior, can be subject to their own self-mutilations.

K T Cat said...

John, think outside of politics. Laws and taxes are nothing more than a partial codification of morality. It's the underlying social constructs that I'm after.

John Travolta said...

Some people don't care about the pain of tattoos and piercings, and don't see them as hideous. You, however, seem to be arguing that since these things go against your 'traditions', they should be curtailed because you possess some 'foresight' that these people lack. How about we just let people live their lives as they see fit, short of denying that ability from someone else?

Mutnodjmet said...

A great insight while shopping. I liked your perspective.

Secular Apostate said...

Body mutilation is a practice as old, I suppose, as humanity. With advances in medical science and plastic surgery, it's even possible to give yourself fake sex organs (superficially, at least).

Frankly, I have no interest in, or sympathy for, people who choose to mutilate themselves. They can choose to poke their eyes out with a sharp stick as far as I am concerned, as long as they don't plead blindness and go on the public dole.

Is body mutiliation stupid? Well yes, in my opinion, it is. But I happen to like my body the way it is, and I always have. I never felt I needed a new hood ornament or fancy paint job. If I had, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth would have been my man. :-)

When I owned my company and did my own hiring and firing, would I have hired someone with weird earlobes or visible tattoos? Never in a million years. As you note, Senor Gato, and I agree, that's a negative indicator for the ability to think ahead. YMMV.

K T Cat said...

John, I hire people. If I have two applicants for a job and one has their arms covered in tattoos and their earlobes mutilated and the other doesn't, all other things being equal, I'm hiring the person who didn't mutilate themselves. As Secular says, it's a strong indicator that the tattooed young man struggles with long-range decisions.

There's much more to it and I really appreciate all of your comments. You've helped me see things in a different way.