Friday, May 30, 2008

Age and Respect

A little while ago I came across a list of things that one was supposed to do to make the local community better. I remember two of them, one I thought was smart -- "Fix it even if you didn't break it" -- and one I thought was stupid: "respect your elders."

Now, in case anyone older than me reads this blog (I doubt it, but just in case), I'm not calling for a campaign against the elderly or anything like that. But I hear this "respect the elders" thing a lot and it never fails to bother me. When I was more directly involved with the Green Party I used to hear a lot about how we should be tapping this valuable resource that was the elderly; they were the ones who could guide the younger generation and so on and so on. In some churches, I understand, the board of directors is actually termed "elders."

But is it really the case that the simple fact of being advanced in years lends one a great store of wisdom and gravitas? I doubt it. Certainly, those who have been around the sun a few more times than the rest of us may have had the chance to acquire wisdom and no doubt some have, but as far as I can tell, age is just as likely to bring prejudice and bitterness as it is to bring compassion and wisdom.

The whole appeal to respect for elders is an instance of easy self-congratulation by those who make the appeal. If I look to the silver-haired old sages for guidance, I myself must be wise and thoughtful since I recognize the dignity and insight of the older generation. Don't fall for it. Judge people as they ought to be judged, on their own character and behaviour, not on their membership in any group. The young may be distinguished by their energy or burdened by naivete; the old may be enlivened by sagacity or weighed down by self-righteousness. Take your human goodness where you find it.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps what you read as "respect your elders" is really the predecessor to today's recognition of a "meritocracy" alternative. That is, as a younger, stronger, louder voice in the group it becomes too easy to push aside the views of those who are no longer in their physical prime... they can no longer force their voice to be heard.

And note that the advice is not "obey your elders" but rather to accord them respect. They've earned the right to be heard, but not carte blanche for obedience.

Now, knowing you, this sort of explicit advice isn't going to be necessary. You're not the sort to be hot-headed on an important issue and you would take the time to consider advice or opinions regardless of where they came from. (It takes wisdom to learn from your enemies.) But I do not believe that this is the automatic default of people... and so perhaps the "respect your elders" bears saying. Not blind obedience... but respect. I think they've earned that much.


Anonymous said...

I agree with Adam. I will always "respect elders". Showing respect to elders is not saying that they are wise (hopefully we respect those who are not wise, as they are just as valuable). For the most part today's elders have worked damn hard all their lives for what they have and for that I think they deserve a lot of respect, especially from younger generation who will never have to work as hard as they did.

Anonymous said...

I completely disagree with the above statements. What the author is trying to get across here is that the whole concept of "respecting your elders" is just as much a stereotype as believing someone is not qualified to do a certain job because they're too young. Certainly there are members of the elderly who deserve our respect, but every generation has its degenerates. Just because someone is old does not mean they've accumulated any amount of wisdom in their lifetime; an older person could just have easily spent their entire life as shiftless nobodies who merely did the minimum they could get away with.

The problem with the old adage of respecting your elders is that it refers to a societal myth of what we believe old age to be. It conjures images of the venerable wise woman, which is not always the true picture. The advice of our elders should be taken with as much salt as the advice from our peers.

Anonymous said...

I can't help you with your own visions of what that "stereotype" entails. I can only share what it means to me... which is that I feel it is our obligation to treat others with respect. That doesn't mean condoning, or even supporting someone else's actions or beliefs... but it means respecting, as much as you can, their right to take those actions or have those beliefs. In the case of an older person offering "wisdom," respect may simply be having the patience to hear them out. In the opposite extreme of a prisoner of war, perhaps it means some sort of honorable death (if you believe in corporeal punishment) instead of the degradation of pointless torture.

I'm not even suggesting that those examples are the correct execution of "respect." I'm just saying that the obligation for respect this there. As a citizen of this planet, it's your obligation to grapple with what that "respect" means, and to exhibit it to the best of your abilities... especially in the case of elders where it is too easy to neglect such things.


Anonymous said...

Yes, but my point is that you should show that basic level of respect to everybody, no matter their age. I happen to make a point of hearing everybody out. I respect the fact that my parents have a totally different belief system than my own and I don't attempt to change it, even if I think they're totally wrong. I respect other people's opinions even if I don't share them, and realize that it is only in very few cases that I would ever be able to change someone's opinions on any given matter even if they're totally off base. That sort of respect should be universal and have nothing to do with how old a person is.