On “Ageism”: My Perspective

by Rudiger Krause

Since receiving the article on ageism I’ve given the topic a lot of thought; I’m not finished thinking but do have some comments and questions. Consider them half-baked and incomplete.

I believe it was during the late nineties when I was taking gerontology courses, that the term “ageism” first came to my attention – the term and the concept. We human beings are namers. We name everything and anything. Did ageism not exist before it was named? How can something exist before it is named? What happens when it is named? Does it somehow change by being named? I start with these questions; I have more.

There are other “-isms.” Feminism, Marxism, totalitarianism, scientism, sexism, racism, Narcissism, among others. Sometimes these names are part of a pair: science/scientism; race/racism. But not always; not necessarily. What kind of a name is it if it has the suffix “-ism”? Is it a name for an ideology? A worldview? Does it tend to have negative connotations? Whether or not it actually is, do we tend to think of it in opposition to something?

The term that has been at the forefront of our awareness lately is, of course, racism – with the paired term, race. We aver that race is an illusion, a social construct but that racism is real and that therefore, paradoxically, race needs to be treated as a reality of sorts – in the process of overcoming racism. It becomes very complicated and problematic and has engendered much debate and confusion. Does all this affect how we think about ageism?

For instance, if I notice that a friend whom I haven’t seen for several years, has aged considerably – am I engaging in ageism just by noticing this? If another friend has stopped dyeing her hair and I say to her, “I really like the looks of your silver-white hair.” – am I engaging in ageism? Just by noticing and commenting?

With “ageism,” what is the paired term? “Age”? “Aging”? It’s a different kind of pair, isn’t it? Age and aging are not illusions, not social constructs. We all age. We all start to age as soon as we are born. And aging (unlike race) is more a process than a “thing.” So, does that mean we need to think about “ageism” differently?

Having said that, we do tend to think of age as a thing, a stage, something we can identify and name. At some point a person becomes an “old person” – in her own eyes and in the eyes of others. How we see determines how we name things in our world; and conversely, how we name things affects how we see them. And that is also true of the term “ageism.” When that term entered our vocabulary, we began to see people and behaviours differently. In what ways has this been helpful? In what ways, detrimental? Can we generally and simply assume that naming something in a certain way is always a step in the right direction?

Pen & watercolour by Keiko Honda

The framework in which I think about these concerns has to do with the basic question of how we deal with “same” and “different.” We notice that and how things (including people and their behaviours) are like and/or unlike; and then we fall back on various habits and strategies of dealing with difference. Often these are unconscious. Too often “unlike” turns into “dislike,” or “difference” results in “indifference.” Aggression and avoidance are the most obvious consequences.

By naming these habits, attitudes and actions we bring them into consciousness; but, at the same time, we create new strategies, new habits of thought, to deal with them, strategies that may or may not be helpful.

The article on ageism identifies both hostile and benign forms. Children may cheat their aging parents out of money. Young people may avoid spending time with older people. Advertisers may target older consumers in manipulative ways. People may dwell on the losses that getting older can bring. Other people may decide to spend their children’s inheritance – and boast about it. And so on. These attitudes and behaviours have reasons and causes including fear and greed and selfishness among others. What good does it do to put all this into one big sack and tie the label “ageism” on this bulky sack? The term doesn’t explain anything and doesn’t help anyone. Are older people better off now that we have this handy term – and the studies and papers – and the accompanying jargon – about it?

Contrast this with how a traditional society deals with problematic or inappropriate attitudes and behaviours. Through personal encounters, through story-telling, dealing with persons in their uniqueness and freedom, with their own personal stories. Not by constructing an unwieldy system of thought and categories and labels which are intended to be objective and analytical but which leave out the unique, free person.

Using terms like ageism (and other -isms) is not unlike the practice of turning the description of a particular behaviour – say obsessive and compulsive behaviour – into a clinical term (usually a supposedly convenient acronym) and then turning this descriptive term into the cause for the behaviour. Behaviours do have causes – usually complex, often mysterious; they may involve genetics, environment factors, childhood trauma, and so on. It is these causes which need to be addressed. Attaching a simplistic acronym to a particular behaviour obscures these underlying causes.

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