Catherine Peng

“How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You’re holding on to the past, but jazz is about the future.”

John Legend’s words moved me as I watched “La La Land.” The star of this year’s awards season, the highly acclaimed musical movie traces the journey of Sebastian, a struggling pianist, on his quest to “save jazz.” A worshipper of Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, Seb has a hard time dealing with the imminent death of jazz as he watches his dream jazz bar, the Van Beek, fall into ruin at the hands of a local musical group with questionable talent. I am Sebastian — and so are you. We have all been Sebastian, knowingly and more often unknowingly. Each one of us has picked our own fight in this world, our own revolution. Some have wider implications on society and some are struggles with purely personal motivations. Do any of these “revolutions,” I wonder, arise from a conflict with what the world calls “tradition?” The New York Times subscriber in me wants to say yes, but the history major in me begs to differ.

I see the protection of tradition as important, not merely for purposes of record and reminiscence, but for the larger cause of continuation. Today’s political climate has opened our eyes to the brutal reality of widespread cultural indifference. People living in close physical proximity can be strikingly distant from each other, failing to perceive their identities as parts of the same whole. I allude to a philosophical divide not only in reference to recent events in American politics, but to the entire world community. We live in an age of conflicting ideologies about what constitutes the “true” identity of a place and a people. Even so, I do not see it as a dark age: I see it as a chance to reevaluate and redefine our cultural identities. If we wish for a future defined by progress and prosperity, we need a consolidated knowledge of the different pasts we come from. What I encourage you to reflect on, however, is what you make out of “the past” and more importantly, how you define “we.”

History has never before seen such convenient and rapid transfers of people, commodities and ideas. The times we live in are indeed “revolutionary.” Our parents had to spend much greater effort, time and wealth to be exposed to the variety of cultures we can access within moments. The digital offerings of our times facilitate this access on an unprecedented scale. Look around you. The structure of the modern university itself manifests this possibility to the fullest. A range of academic offerings enables us to intimately understand the histories of diverse cultures. We share classrooms, jokes, memories, fears and pies of pizza with fellow classmates who are just like and nothing like us. Consumerism, you may argue, has fetishized and diminished “real” cultures to mere commodities. On a more optimistic note, however, you are constantly and subconsciously embracing new cultures thanks to this very phenomenon: a previously unknown culinary offering from a Yelp-approved “authentic restaurant,” musical tunes from an unknown culture you discover, albeit because Justin Bieber decided to slide it into his latest single. Even though I could cite infinite sources of implicit and explicit cultural interconnectedness, what worries me is the extent to which we acknowledge it. Do we?

Multiculturalism is an ideal easy to aspire to and difficult to realize. And the challenge stems from a perfectly human tendency to fear the unknown, or simply ignore it. I hope for a world that is not overwhelmed by its diversity to the extent that it desensitizes itself to it. In welcoming new ideas, we battle with our own private garden of thoughts. In learning unfamiliar customs, we feel obligated to unlearn our own and thus develop the slightest suspicion. In such circumstances, we often end up overwhelmed, desperate to run away and tempted to create a homogenous monoculture stripped of the very abundance of tradition that in fact defines our age. Today, it is easy, even inviting, to believe that “traditionalism” in its literal sense is entirely incompatible with the “revolutionary” spirit. Before giving in, however, I urge you to pause and think about what “tradition” could mean — to you, to those around you and to those very far from you. If we open ourselves up to unfamiliar ways of thinking that are different or even disagreeable to us, we can cultivate ourselves in ways previously unimaginable. The access, opportunity and freedom to have the world on a plate, like we do at Yale, is a privilege not enjoyed by many people in this world. Moving forward does not require us to abandon what we know already. It requires that we learn from the good, the bad and the ugly of human society — every part of it — and that from here on, we use this knowledge to advance our personal revolutions. Discover the Sebastian in you and find a passion worth fighting for. At the same time, be on the lookout for other Sebs that fill this world with their own quests to safeguard the traditions they value. You never know: you might pick up a lesson or two in jazz yourself.

Contact Devyani Aggarwal at devyani.aggarwal@yale.edu .