JP Observer : Ageism, Flourishing These Days, Is Also Wrong

Thoughtful, aware people shun expressions of prejudice when they talk about and to members of different races, genders and ethnic groups. Yet lately, some of the same conscientious folks don’t seem to mind stereotyping older people as a group. What’s worse, they’re getting away with it.

It’s generally accepted that it’s bad to be openly racist or sexist. Unfortunately, it seems even some liberals and progressives have forgotten that there’s something called “ageist,” too. And practicing ageism is just as bad as assuming that any other group shares negative traits based simply on their identity.

“We know ageism is a serious problem,” said an article on the AARP website in September last year. “But does everyone? It’s a kind of bigotry with insidious roots that has largely remained unchecked.”

I am going to give some recent examples, but I’m not out to shame individuals, so I won’t necessarily give proper names of offenders. Ageism is one prejudice people seem comfortable expressing in public these days, confident no one will complain. Older people sometimes even accept the negativity and join in stereotyping. That needs to change.

A headline in a daily newspaper after the Sept. 12 Democratic presidential debate said, “It’s Time to Talk About Joe Biden’s Age.” Let’s see. How many things are wrong with that? First, why not Bernie Sanders’ age? He’s two years older than Biden. What about Pete Buttigieg, who’s only 37?

So, is age really the thing we need to talk about? Are people aged 76 like Biden particularly unfit to be president or something? No, obviously not.

What we really need to talk about is Biden’s difficulty expressing himself clearly and accurately enough to be president. Mentioning age, Biden’s speaking was the actual concern the writer described in his commentary.

And that’s how everyone needs to discuss anyone of any age whose abilities they are worrying about—with specificity about actions and behavior, not the person’s identity. News people and pundits—anyone who speaks in public—have to be especially aware and careful.

Presidential candidate Julián Castro got called out for his ageism after the Sept. 12 debate, because host ABC had fact-checkers on the scene. Minutes after the debate was over, one reported that 45-year-old Castro was wrong when he accused Biden of misremembering what he said just said.

Castro’s play to the stereotype that older people automatically have memory problems backfired on him severely. It was Castro who had remembered incorrectly, the fact-checker said, and the incident got reported again and again the next day.

Without the fact-checker stepping in, Castro might have gotten away with his ageist insinuation when he stared at Biden and said: “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago? Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago? I mean, I can’t believe that you said two minutes ago that they had to buy in and now you’re saying they don’t have to buy in. You’re forgetting that.” Prejudice is like that.

It’s not that I am a big Biden supporter; it’s just that electoral politics, including the presidential race, is providing lots of examples of blatant bigotry toward older people.

In recent months I have heard and read more than one supposedly progressive person say something to the effect of: “We need to get the old, white men out of Congress.” That’s a recommendation based purely on identity, not behavior. Do the people who say that actually care less about representatives’ stands on issues, leadership roles in Congress that come with seniority and political actions than they care about their advanced ages and other identities? That’s what it sounds like. If so, for example, there go Bernie Sanders, Chuck Schumer and quite a few other quality people.

Saying older people aren’t welcome in a regular workplace is against the law. Older people are a “protected class” in federal and Massachusetts anti-discrimination law. (White men are not, as that group has not experienced years of documented discrimination.) Because seniors are often victims of bigotry, employers are not allowed to consider a person’s age when making personnel decisions.

Good idea. None of us should stereotype by age—just like we are not allowed to assume blanket negative characteristics about races, ethnic groups and genders—when making decisions. It’s not only bad form and often illegal, it can easily lead, as with Castro, to making mistakes.

 A meme on Facebook in big letters on a blue background attracted dozens of “likes” from people of various ages, including people over 55, early this month: “You ever worked with old people? This is a real frustration. lol”

It went on to say someone asked the writer to “fax an offer,” adding that the person was probably “located” somewhere way “before 2019.”

Similar to Castro’s gaffe, when the Facebook guy insulted older people he revealed that he and everyone who liked his post lacked the experience to know that faxes are still sometimes requested in legal, real estate, medical and banking enterprises, with the only acceptable alternative being original hard copy. lol

Massachusetts Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III’s Democratic primary challenge to Senator Edward J. Markey—known weeks before it was announced officially on Sept. 21—has brought up questions of only slightly subtler ageism. Rep. Kennedy, 38, and Sen. Markey, 73, are both left of center Democrat white males in Congress who differ very little in their stands on public policies. Markey has been a leader on environmental protection, technology and energy issues since he first went to the House of Representatives in 1977.

Unlike the successful 2018 primary challenge of Congressman Mike Capuano by local Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, Kennedy’s identity differs from Markey in only one way—age—and Kennedy’s being a member of a political dynasty, if that should count as a good reason to vote for him.

Pressley said on WGBH’s Greater Boston during the campaign that she pretty much agreed with Capuano on issues, too, but argued she is a black woman—an identity underrepresented in Congress and never before included in the delegation to the House from Massachusetts. Also in the realm of identity, Pressley is a Bostonian, like the majority of voters in the district, while Capuano lives in Somerville.

On WBZ News on Sept. 18, commentator Jon Keller described the Kennedy-Markey match-up as “a classic generational battle previewed” in the Pressley-Capuano primary.

The Kennedy-Markey contest will be a good test. Do JP and Massachusetts voters think youth should prevail over age— all else objectively being equal or even favoring the more experienced incumbent leader at this point? Markey, for example, just created the highly praised Green New Deal last year promoting environmental protection with progressive newcomer Congresswoman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. We’ll see.

My thoughts have been going to Nate Smith a lot these days. He was a vocal member of the Gray Panthers and an affordable housing activist who never failed to point out and work against ageism in Jamaica Plain and anywhere else he saw it. The Nate Smith House, 44 units for seniors on Lamartine Street, is named for the combination tough, smart and kind popular hero who died in 2002 in his nineties. We need to bring back Nate’s anti-ageism vision and messages.

What to call people now ages 55-73 (Baby Boomers) and their elders has become controversial. Various labels offend different people, such as: senior, elder, old(er) person, aging person, geriatric person, and person in their golden years.

It’s time to move past worrying about the names we use for the age group that makes up about 21 percent of both the U.S. and JP population [US. Census Bureau, September, 2018]. Instead, if we want a better society and neighborhood we need to focus on the complex issues of what gets said about and done to people over 55.

Maybe the Boomers had the current ageism coming to them. They are the generation that featured some members who, when they were young, wore buttons and t-shirts and carried signs saying: “Never trust anyone over 30.”

I’m sure the people who said that are sorry now. They should be. Let’s all work to ditch the indirectly spoken slogan that dominates today: “Don’t give credibility or respect to most people over 55.”

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