Pyle: Because we've always done it that way
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Johnna Lingle was the first female elected to the county commission in Johnson County, Kan., a rapidly urbanizing and comparatively wealthy suburb of Kansas City, Mo.

This was when Kansas, and the rest of America, was quickly ticking off a list of the first female this and the first woman that and the first girl to do something interesting. Lingle, who had already blazed that trail by heading up a local chamber of commerce, wore the label comfortably.

When it came her year to serve as the commission's presiding officer, the press gaggle I was part of asked her the only question we knew our editors would demand an answer to: "Do you wish to be referred to as 'chairman', 'chairwoman' or 'chairperson'?"

Her answer was as cool and elegant as she was: "My personal preference would be to be called 'chairfox.' But state law says every county commission will have a chairman, so that's what I am."

About the same time, the commission was managing another transition, a voter-approved move from the 19th century model of three commissioners making both legislative and executive decisions to a system where five commissioners filled the legislative role and hired a professional administrator to serve as CEO.

Lingle chaired many meetings where each county department received a detailed going-over as part of deciding where each should fall in the new bureaucratic flow chart they would hand to their first administrator.

One of the most common questions asked of the parade of department heads was, "Why do we do it that way?" And one response was heard so often, and yet so haltingly, that Chairman Lingle soon made a new rule: If the answer to a question is "Because we've always done it that way," just say so. It's not your fault and it will save everybody a lot of time.

Some people who stood up before the United States Supreme Court — and four of the people who sit on it — tried to argue that same-sex marriage should not be endorsed by any United States jurisdiction. And, despite reams of paper and megas of pixels, all they really had was, "Because we've always done it that way."

It wasn't enough.

To paraphrase the Declaration of Independence, traditions long established should not be changed for light and transient causes. Traditions spring up for reasons that seemed to make sense at the time and continued to help people find their way in an often confusing world.

But we descendents of revolutionary free thinkers should not and, generally, will not be content with mere force of habit. Everything from killing Indians to holding slaves to second-class status for women survived for generations because, well, we'd always done it that way.

Whether it was the idea that women couldn't be political leaders or couldn't marry other women, it was simply a bad habit we had to shake. And ask any smoker how hard that can be.

The voices now lamenting the fact that we won't do it that way anymore are, at least when they emanate from non-politicians, painfully sincere. They reflect the same genuine fear of change that has caused everything from faith traditions to nations to county bureaucracies to cling to the old ways, and to fear being seen as the one who rocked the boat.

The people who are panicked by last week's ruling must have a chance to vent, to decompress. A nationwide case of the bends is never pretty.

But we survived the end of Jim Crow, the rise of women in politics and we will survive same-sex marriage.

In fact, there are many, mostly younger, people who already wonder why we haven't always done it that way.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, has been writing stuff like this for 35 years. Because. Suggest alternatives at gpyle@sltrib.com or via Twitter @debatestate.