“What you’re going through is a phase.”
“You’ll understand when you get older.”
Since I was a teenager, I have hated the condescension of the elderly. This post is going to be more of a rant than an argument, but it needs to be said. Perhaps you can use this as ammunition if an older friend or family-member starts trying to play the age-card, as they are want to do (especially on social media like Facebook).
Now don’t get me wrong — some of these older adults truly are wise, having matured into their later years. But like the real scientist who appeals to data rather than to the mere fact that he is a scientist, the genuinely wise among the elderly seldom resort to insinuations about age — their own or yours — as an argument. That kind of play is usually made by un-self-aware individuals who think that they are wiser than they are, and mistake the usual benchmarks of wisdom with the thing itself.
The first and most obvious problem with this particularly narcissistic form of argumentum ad verecundium is that not all “mature” adults agree, on virtually any topic. The elderly allusion to the foolishness of youth falls apart when it becomes apparent that in fact, many elderly people happen to hold a similar view to any particular youth in question. It becomes a lot harder to claim that “atheism is a phase” (for instance), when you understand that a great number of respectable and mature adults hold exactly that position.
(For the record, I believe atheism is incorrect, but I would never claim that it is wrong because it is immature, let alone because I am old and wise and think differently.)
But the greatest problem with the arrogance of age–and also, the key to understanding the difference between the genuinely wise and the self-deluding fool–is this: most of these condescending “wise elders” have never changed their mind.
Before I quit Facebook, I used to get into debates with acquaintances and friends-of-acquaintances in comment-threads, and it always astonished me how frequently my middle-aged interlocutor — the ones who almost invariably opened with the age-card — would later admit that their views were essentially the same as they had been when they were teenagers.
Naturally, their condescension would be better directed at their un-matured selves than a stranger. But just to be totally, bullet-proof crystaline on the importance of this observation, we can use math.
There is a famous math-scenario called the “Monty-Hall Problem” which was made famous in 1990 in the following formulation:
Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, “Do you want to pick door No. 2?” Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?
The intuitive answer, of course, is that it doesn’t matter: you chose at random, and revealing a wrong door still makes your odds the same.
But the correct decision is to change your decision.
At first, your odds of choosing the correct door are 1/3. But as soon as the host reveals an incorrect door, changing your answer results in improving those odds to 1/2, whereas maintaining your initial choice actually retains the starting (1/3) odds.
The condescending old person who thinks that they are more credible because they have remained steadfast in their positions is unwise for two reasons: first, because their steadfastness in and of itself makes them unlikely to be correct in their positions; second, even if they are right, it is not out of wisdom, but chance. They rolled the dice as a young person and got lucky. If their “wisdom” was a stagnation of their opinion in youth, then it is not the product of experience and age, but stubborn arrogance and a lack of intellectual curiosity.
The wiser old person will be the one who has experimented with many different opinions and positions. The one who was willing to change opinions when a metaphorical door was revealed to be a losing one. (And, tellingly, the one who doesn’t think that their experience as a parent or a professional cross-applies as experience in, for instance, politics).
Wisdom often requires age, but age, by itself, does not bring wisdom.
On principle, I think that Boomer-hatred is overblown, and that Baby-Boomers are not uniquely bad as a generation. But there does seem to be a greater deal of narcissism and entitlement among the Boomers and even older Gen-Xers who mistake their age for wisdom, and reveal their mistake by playing the age-card.
In the same vein and for the same reason, those who lean the heaviest on the supposed obligation of the youth to “respect their elders” are the least-worthy of respect.
Young people should seek out wiser elders as mentors; these relations are far more valuable than your college degree. But the wise among the elders don’t pick fights with teenagers on Facebook.
In fact, it’s probable that the majority of the ones worth learning from won’t even be found there.
This Post Has 6 Comments
My New Handle18 Feb 2020
I agree with your internet rant. I find that the college educated are some of the worst offenders here. Would much prefer a sweet old lady giving me short and simple life advice than suffering through the intellectual masturbation of nuanced pseudo-sermons.
Btw, what exactly is atheism wrong about? My impression was that you had departed from theism.
C.B. Robertson18 Feb 2020
Agreed on the college part. I think perhaps degrees sometimes get to people’s heads, and people think their degree in English makes them qualified to opine and condescend on all kinds of subjects.
RE atheism, much depends upon terminology. But in a strict sense, a God is an entity that is worshipped, which is not limited to supernatural beings. There are some who claim that on this account, there is actually no such thing as atheism: everyone worships something (money, intelligence, love, power, etc). I find this view a little extreme, but the point is that far more things can be (and indeed, used to be) thought of as “Gods” than are conceptualized as such today. Christianity has infused a supernaturalist literalism into most modern Westerner’s understanding of the concept, but this understanding is actually contrary to the pre-Christian Western tradition (for example, the Symposium, a Platonic dialogue exploring the philosophy of love, was considered to be an act of worship of the God Eros). The practical problem with “atheism” as a label is that it says nothing about what one values… except perhaps the value of skepticism and not being gullible. Not a bad quality, but hardly a value worthy to devote one’s life to.
So, for me personally, I consider the Anwei to be a particularly important God: the spirit of the lineage. But it is not the only one.
My New Handle19 Feb 2020
I’ve read something to the effect of that ancient peoples would conceptualize their feelings as gods animating them. But to say that they didn’t literally believe in them “literally” seems like a wild claim to me. I’d love to hear where you got that understanding from. “Big if true” I guess.
You referenced the symposium, I haven’t read it. If I need to, in order to understand your point, I gladly will. Yet if I penned some theological treatise on the gospels, could I not say that I am worshipping God, while still believing him in literally, much like Plato did with the symposium?
C.B. Robertson19 Feb 2020
I’ll put it this way: a spiritual mentor of sorts (Clinton McMillan) has talked about ancient beliefs about Thor/Thunraz as a kind of anthropomorphization of thunder itself. But to appreciate and worship the God, the anthropomorphization isn’t actually necessary — Thunraz IS the lightning. The literal truth of the deity would never have been in question, only the correct understanding of his nature, which may not have been literal, but was never identical with the God himself.
This is in stark contrast with the Abrahamic God, which is a literalized abstraction, rather than an abstractly understood literal phenomenon.
NC20 Feb 2020
Thanks for this post. Interesting how the comments went more in the direction of atheism, something you mentioned in passing. Curious to see what speaks to us and what motivates us to speak. On your main topic this post – fully agree that the age card is not really an argument at all. It’s a bit like trying to support experience by experience. Why am I doing this? Because I’ve always done it (and similar arguments). This reminds me of a short dialogue in one of the Bond movies between the older Bond and his much younger quartermaster went something like this: youth does not guarantee originality, age does not guarantee wisdom.
C.B. Robertson21 Feb 2020
Truth, RE youth & originality.
Honestly, the atheism thing was a bit of an aside, however, it is a very fun and valuable subject to go down the rabbit-hole on.