When Should Heritage Be Discarded?

Heritage is one of the most powerful dictators of our behavior. It provides us identity, morality, and grounds for sympathy. In dictating our behavior, sometimes one part of our heritage contradicts the other, and we are forced to choose. Japanese Americans in WW2 who chose to fight as Americans decided that the American national heritage takes precedence over their Japanese ethnic heritage. Indonesians chose to put aside their heritage as former ethnic enemies when we declared the end of our status as a conquered colony. The shared heritage of Christian values and Roman legal system allowed Europe to form a union. Heritage passed down from past conflicts such as that of India and Pakistan could trigger a nuclear war. The cycle of ignoring or emphasizing different parts of our heritage is a constant one. The question is, how do we decide which one is which?

Initially, let’s understand heritage from the perspective of evolutionary science. Take the parallel between our heritage to our genes, and our behavior to our physical body. Both our genes and heritage are inherited from our parents, which we fuse, alter, and pass on to our children. Our behavior determines our survivability and passing on of our heritage just as our physical body determines our survivability and passing of our genes. As evolutionary beings, natural selection dictates that we discard genes that hold us back and pass on those that benefit us. The same applies to heritage. When civilization moves forward, we downplay or ignore heritage that we consider no longer relevant, and amplify heritage that we consider forward-thinking.

Having established the parallel, the second point would be assessing and deciding which heritage to downplay and which to amplify. To do this, we would have to remove the sentimental value associated with heritage and observe it based on its macro products. For example, religion is a powerful tool to legitimize authority, enforce social norms and unite people beyond tribal or ethnic groups. Cultural cuisines maximize nutritional intake based on ingredients available in the region. Even heritage that does not seem to benefit the survival of the species must be relevant to our survival at the point of its creation. Things we dread today such as human sacrifice, slavery, and racism had benefits to our ancestors. They helped establish a social hierarchy that allows the formation of a cruel yet cohesive society. A cohesive society however cruel, is always more favorable for the survival of our species to no society at all. It is why so many historical societies had barbaric customs from our perspective. We despise these ideas now, and try to distance ourselves from it. We figured out that it’s better for our species to increase the turnover of the social order rather than preserve them at the expense of the suffering of others. This enables more members of society to contribute in an intellectual capacity and further civilization. It is no coincidence that feminism became widely supported and accepted along with the rise of industrially manufactured consumer products that lowers the amount of work needed at home and increases the need for capital income of the family.

The process of the transformation is akin to the market process of determining the equilibrium price between demand and supply, driven by an invisible hand rather than by conscious collective thought. Societies with the right idea would advance and grow dominant, and those with the opposite would become subservient. One of the various examples would be the reversal of dominance between European and Middle Eastern schools of thought. When Europe grew more religious, they discard Greco-Roman science and philosophy, branding them as heretical. Meanwhile, in the Muslim world, these knowledge was embraced. The period became the dark age in Europe, but the Golden Age of Islam. One of the most obvious inheritances was the use of Arabic numerals worldwide. But when the Renaissance came along, the role reversed once more and the world became West-dominated.

Understanding the process, then we should turn to the issue of speed. Change happens in an exponentially faster rate nowadays. The factors that determine them are the diversity of ideas and the presence of a catalyst. Therefore societies that are more rational and less dominated by an institution would be faster to recognize the need to discard and reinvent. The catalysts of change are often crisis and conflict. The world wars had opened the path to the rise of republicanism in Europe, decolonization of Asia and Africa, as well as other nationalist movements. The losing side in a war does not always lose their heritage however. Often they are reinterpreted and became accepted widely by the winning side. The ideas of Zen Buddhism became widely known in the US after WW2 when it was reinterpreted from the focus of preserving social in Japan to a spiritual alternative to rigid Christian morality. In practice, the process is closer to the thesis-antithesis Hegelian pendulum. Heritage with irrelevant parts could be transformed into a different interpretation that is relevant and useful for economic benefits like tourist-attracting cremation ritual in Bali. It used to be more gruesome when it was customary for widows to join the pyre of their deceased husbands. Once it was transformed into a tourist attraction, this part of the tradition ceases to be practiced. Irrelevant institutions could also be repurposed for highlighting national identity such in the case of modern constitutional royals whose throne is a disguise of the republic in practice. Reinterpretation and repurposing of old traditions and institutions are however not the biggest issues of the process.

The biggest issue of the process is that the catalyzing conflict is often violent and bring with it casualties. Even reasonably peaceful ones such as the civil rights movement resulted in the death of the freedom riders. In more violent revolutions, such as China’s cultural revolutions, the toll numbers in millions. Conflict is inevitable, but the damage could be minimized by scaling it down. Through making the issue better recognized by both sides in a manner that is rational and civilized, the cost of conflict could be lowered. This is hard to achieve because naturally we are not accustomed to talk about conflicting perceptions in a civilized manner, especially about inherited ideas and perceptions that form our identity. We either don’t talk about it at all, or blindly defend our point and detaching completely fromform the rationale. Our heritage brings with it our value and esteem, and therefore it is really hard to admit its shortcomings. However, the alternative to communicating and challenging them is violent and damaging, and might even trigger a planet-wide suicide by nuclear war.

Our heritage means so much to us. It dictates how we live, our esteem, and our values. Sometimes we have to ignore or reinterpret them to continue the survival of our species, and the process is often by violent conflict. We must acknowledge that our heritage is only a tool for advancing civilization and therefore subject to reform. Learning to talk about conflicts in civility and reason is key to prevent the conflict from escalating to the point of irreversible damage.