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Examining Ageist Attitudes

Written by Alex Koroknay-Palicz May 31, 2007

Becoming a more egalitarian individual in respect to age is a continual process.  It requires constant examination of all the habits, ideas, and attitudes we develop in life.  In general we learn how to behave and how to think from the people around us.  Our thoughts on politics, our mannerisms, our religious beliefs, our tastes in style and culture all come from the society in which we live.  This presents a challenge for the youth rights activist since our society is a very ageist society and we are unconsciously influenced by it.

From time to time I try to examine these subtle manifestations of ageism and expose their roots and the harm they cause.  Coming home from work today I noticed a young man wearing a very baggy t-shirt and pants.   It seemed like it would be extremely hot to wear what he was wearing.  What makes this story interesting is that I used to wear baggy clothes.  Now my tastes have changed and I prefer more form-fitting clothes.

For a split second as I was considering my switch from baggy to fit clothes I congratulated myself.  As if I had finally solved the mystery of ultimate clothes size comfort and poor fools like the guy on the street were still struggling in discomfort and ignorance.  But was I truly an enlightened clothes wearer now?  No, not really.  My tastes had simply changed.  There is nothing objectively better or worse about baggy clothes.

But why did I have such a gut level initial reaction?

It is because of a certain kind of intrinsic arrogance that leads most people to believe their decisions are universally true.  I’ve decided that fit clothes are more comfortable – and for me they certainly are – but that does not mean this fact is true for everyone.  What takes this beyond a simple argument for relativity and tolerance is that I wasn’t just comparing myself to this guy on the street, but I was comparing my current self to my former self.  This is where ageism creeps in.

Seeing life through the eyes of another is already a phenomenally difficult task for most people – and is a large factor in all of humanity’s wars and injustices.  But counter-intuitively it can often be more difficult to see things through your own eyes.  Most people see their lives as a linear progression building up to right now.  As if they’ve been building a house for 30 or 40 years and now it is all finished and complete and perfect.   Their former self was flawed and ignorant and just a half-attempt at being the full person they are today.  This is a notion known as age dualism.

It is easy for this perspective to develop.  We see the mistakes we have made in the past and have learned from them.  Through the miracle of 20/20 hindsight we see our former selves as flawed people making mistakes we only became aware of later in life (i.e. once we obtained enlightenment and turned 25, or 42, or whatever age we are right now).  There is a sense of “I know better now.”  Of course we are blind to the mistakes we are making right now, and the mistakes we will make in the future.  Or even if we are aware of the mistakes we are making now, we don’t see them as severe as the mistakes we made long ago.

People are very good at making generalizations and seeking easy explanations for problems.   If you observe a few people from an ethnic group, or country, or gender doing something that bothers you, surely it is because of ___(insert quality of ‘otherness’ here)___.  Since you can’t lump your former self in with his ethnicity or gender (ya know, cause that doesn’t change) you target age.  So it becomes very easy for me to say that since I wore baggy clothes pretty much from middle school through half of college that all middle school, high school and college students (especially those who wear baggy clothes) are ignorant.  This of course is a very ageist perspective.

We really need to put ourselves in our own shoes (kinda a silly way of putting it, but you get the point).  Was I less comfortable when I wore baggy clothes in high school?  No.  I was quite comfortable then – that’s why I wore them.  So I didn’t make a switch from ignorance to enlightenment, but my tastes and preferences simply changed.  What was comfortable for me then is uncomfortable for me now.  That just needs to be accepted.  If one day I decide that shorts are uncomfortable (heaven forbid!) I need to accept that right now I find them incredibly comfortable.  If someone is really into smooth jazz and then twenty years later finds himself really preferring gangsta rap – that doesn’t mean rap is superior to smooth jazz (though it obviously is), it just means that one’s tastes have changed.

So you’ll see comments from people like “pssh, I used to think like that.”  or “Yea, I went through a phase like that, boy was I dumb.”  or “Look what that guy is wearing, I used to dress like him, why didn’t anyone tell me I looked so foolish?”  Former Republicans will say this about the GOP, former Democrats will say it about liberals.  They are just using an ageist argument to justify their political views.

So just consider this a reminder to examine all your habits, attitudes and impulses.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates

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