Beware the ides of ageism

October 14, 2022 10:42
Photo: Reuters

There’s a saying in Cantonese – which translates roughly to “I’ve had more salt than you’ve had rice.” One would be hard-pressed to find the English equivalent – but I guess the closest would be, “I, unlike you, wasn’t born yesterday.” Even then, the quasi-idiom feels forced when converted into English.

The difficulty of translating this adage, in my view, reflects two broader facts. The first, is that the Cantonese language is a terrifically rich and robust one when it comes to the vivacity and diversity of its imagery. The second, is that there is something rather unique about the fetishisation of age and ‘experience’ in the Cantonese and, perhaps, the Chinese culture. Here, age counts. Age is viewed as a basis for valourisation and celebration – one that would warrant default deference and respect.

“Pay respect to your elders,” is another slogan that I’ve oft heard trotted out. When an argument is nearing the end of its runway, when one of the interlocutors feel that they are on the losing end of the see-saw, the classic, “You don’t know enough, you should respect me!” retort gets brought up and expressed with such incandescent righteousness, that it would seem sacrilegious to defy the orders of the heavens. All under heavens would be governed by the laws of ‘elderly know best’.

To some extent, I understand why the logic of deference holds. There are decent reasons to defer to the advice of the elder and more experienced, for they have seen more, experienced more, contributed more, or – indeed – know more. They have had the many decades ahead of us in which they made mistakes, attempted changes that did or did not work out, and undertook challenging tasks that would leave lasting imprints and marks on their life chances.

We should learn from our predecessors. We should listen to them, indeed with humility and attention to details. We must not dwell on the fixations of the past, commit the same mistakes as our forefathers, nor should we repeat the wasted efforts of yore. For these reasons, amidst others, learning from the old may not be always a bad idea.

Yet none of this implies that age alone is a sufficient condition for someone’s views to be worthy of deference and embracing – no one’s views, indeed, should be accepted unchallenged. This applies especially to those who seem to think that their age, as reported and repeatedly affirmed by them in public speech-acts, is thus an automatic qualifier indicative of quality.

This is simply untrue. There are many pressing socioeconomic challenges, technological transformations, nascent policy issues and debates, of which the youth are far more likely to possess first-hand and insider understanding. Indeed, many of the existential risks confronting the Earth today – ranging from climate change to AI singularity (assuming non-alignment) – require know-how and familiarity with concepts that the old may not necessarily fathom. Most fundamentally, there inevitably would exist blind-spots in those who have accrued both seniority and status within the pecking order – to someone starting out or at the proverbial ‘bottom of the rung’, the social reality they inhabit could look drastically divergent from that populated and viewed from the very top. Empathy is key – the young should learn to empathise with the old, just as the old should learn that empathy with the young could teach them more, than merely asserting authority.

Then there is the modality of thinking. The assumption that the more ‘tested’ or ‘applied’ a method of thinking and reasoning is, the better it thus is… is inherently flawed. Through mechanisms of habitus and inertia, we may in fact come to subscribe to methods of reasoning that are intrinsically flawed – yet embraced by us sheerly in virtue of our familiarity with and dependence upon them. Take the following example: a civil servant for whom adherence to protocol and code of conduct over the past three decades have enabled them to go from strength to strength, may view adherence to the stipulated laws and rules as of paramount importance in guiding their responses to the unfamiliar and the unknown. But there are few laws and rules that could equip them with understanding the unique blend of populist upheaval and technological acceleration that has come to shape international politics. Fewer protocols, indeed, enable them to make sense of the shifting international tectonics that make the world far less safe than it was thirty years ago – when their career had just started.

So what gives? Must the answer be sought through their deferring to even ‘older’ folks – the Kissingers and Walesas of the land? Can the answer be developed only through scavenging through past historical archives and facts, anecdotes and stories? Could an answer be found in the echo chamber comprising the veteran, experienced, and old? Maybe – perhaps.

But perhaps a more plausible solution, a more constructive way out, is for those who are ‘seasoned’ to seek fresh ideas and views from the ‘unseasoned’ – which is, by the way, how knowledge transmission and exchange best occur. The keen and inexperienced have as much to gain, as to share, with their elder peers. A dialogical and mutually respectful relationship between the elder and the younger, would by far be more constructive than one where the former lectures and talks down at the latter. Beware the ides of ageism!

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Assistant Professor, HKU