Wisdom is wasted on the old

Something about the Brexit vote is still nagging at me. I’m honestly not sure why I care – well, aside from the fact that we’re probably watching the opening act for the next generation of racism. I’m not particularly well-informed as to the dynamics of the situation, and the actual consequences of it are likely to be fairly boring after the government jostles and slumps its way into a comfortable position. It’s easy enough to conclude that 52% of any population are uninformed idiots, but this feels like more than just a bad decision. Something about it feels wrong.

The most notable aspect of the voting demographics is the age gap. 73% of 18-to-24-year-olds voted Remain; 60% of those 65 or older voted Leave. The conventional wisdom is that people get more conservative as they get older, but that doesn’t apply here. The conservative choice was Remain; if old people are set in their ways and want to keep things the way they are, that’s how they should have voted. Leaving is precisely the sort of dramatic change that’s considered characteristic of naive young people who want to shake things up.

So what we’re actually looking at here is a values split, and the obvious interpretation is that old people are racist. This is statistically accurate, but it’s a fact that’s never really given its due. We frame racism as a matter of ignorance: racist people supposedly don’t know that there aren’t really major behavioral differences between people of different races. But this is exactly the sort of opinion that should be overcome by the wisdom of experience. The science isn’t difficult to understand, and the topic has been discussed to death; surely anyone who’s been alive for 60 damn years has had enough time to figure this out.

Furthermore, the longer you’ve been alive, the more opportunity you’ve had to be shaken out of your preconceptions by formative experiences. In America, anyone who is in the vicinity of 70 years old today was a young adult during the civil rights movement. As the story goes, this was when Martin Luther King, Jr. calmly and patiently explained to white America that they shouldn’t judge people based on their skin color, so the people who were just becoming politically aware at the time should have internalized this lesson very deeply. Indeed, seeing as today’s young people have not yet experienced a major anti-racist movement, they ought to be the uninformed ones; the demographic situation should be the exact opposite of what it actually is.

From what I understand, British history hasn’t followed the same pattern. Immigration has come up as a big issue only recently, so it seems that even old people have the excuse of inexperience. But then, the same is true of young people, so why the age gap? Again, shouldn’t the situation be the opposite? Shouldn’t young people be reacting naively to immediate events, while old people are able to fit things into a well-developed political framework? The gap, then, must be one of values: regardless of how well-informed anyone is, old people believe in racism and young people don’t (as much). But this is a deeply unfortunate conclusion; it can only mean that values are completely separate from knowledge and experience. If we can’t educate people out of racism, if values fundamentally don’t accord with the truth, then what hope do we have of ever getting this right – of ever getting anything right?

That story about the civil rights movement is indeed the bad kind of myth. What actually happened was that successful political organization resulted in laws and structural changes that made society function in a less racist manner, without changing most people’s minds about it. The result was that subsequent generations were raised under less racist conditions. For example, they were more likely to have childhood friends of different races, interracial relationships were not illegal, and increased financial and educational opportunities meant that adults ended up with more diverse peer groups. The effect was not that anyone’s mind was changed at the time, but rather that a new, less racist generation was created while previous generations stayed the same. The reason people in general are now “less racist” is simply that more racist people have died and less racist people have been born.

(Just so we’re clear, I’m not saying that no one ever changes their values based on experience, just that the effect is dramatically less significant than it’s commonly portrayed to be. Two people can have exactly the same experience and draw opposite moral conclusions from it. Also, I’m not claiming that young people aren’t racist, just that the age gap isn’t merely aesthetic, that it does have some amount of substance behind it.)

This, in fact, is the actual engine of progress: old people fail to indoctrinate the next generation with their ideals, and then they die. The great democratic drama where everyone comes to a rational consensus through reasoned debate is worse than a fantasy; it’s close to being a malicious lie. In the end, the only way to get rid of harmful ideals is to kill the people who believe in them. Right now we’re, uh, fortunate enough to have time taking care of this for us, but if the utopians ever live up to their bluster and do something about death, this would become an immediate issue. Even without resource consumption being a factor, there are certain sets of ideals which simply cannot coexist. We would not be able to avoid choosing who lives and who dies.

Actually . . . this issue isn’t particularly theoretical. There exist people right now who are enforcing ideals that prevent other people from living their lives. If they can be argued out of it, super. If not, well. There are times when moral behavior is not merely desirable, but imperative.

Even with that aside, though, there are still some unsettling political implications here. To be blunt, what the hell are we doing letting old people vote? I mean, it’s sort of a common joke that old people are big voters, but this isn’t just some wacky coincidence. Electoral results are being decided by the people least qualified to be deciding them. To be even blunter, old people aren’t going to get to live in the future, so why do they have any right to decide what it’s going to look like? Given that the Brexit vote was close and the actual implementation is going to be a multi-year bureaucratic process, it’s entirely possible that the vote was decided by people who won’t live to see any of its effects.

There’s a magnificent scene in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner where, after the boyfriend’s father tries to push him around by going on about how hard he worked and how much he sacrificed to raise him, the boyfriend finally snaps and informs his father that he doesn’t owe him shit, that everything he did for his son was merely the fulfillment of his basic responsibilities, and that he and his entire generation has the further responsibility to die and to let the next generation get on with their lives, with the “dead weight” of the past finally off their backs. (Yeah, I’m not doing this justice. Click the link.) While I don’t hold any particular antipathy towards previous generations, I was deeply struck by this scene, as it was the first time I’d encountered the idea that it is parents who owe their children deference, that part of the wisdom of age ought to be the wisdom to know when something is not your decision to make. If we’re talking about fixing democracy, this might, paradoxically, be a good place to start: don’t let people stick their noses into things that are none of their fucking business.

And yet, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Old people are supposed to have precisely this wisdom; they should be the ones telling us this stuff. America is on the low end, but pretty much every culture has at least some notion of respecting the accumulated lifetime knowledge and highly-developed judgment of the elderly. And yet our current model for old people is basically Grandpa Simpson piecing history together from sugar packets. So, like, what happened?

Presumably, the concept of the “elder” came about because old people used to actually know shit, and, when considering simpler forms of social arrangement than what we’re currently used to, this makes intuitive sense. People used to have to survive in smaller units under particular environmental conditions; people who had done so for a long time would naturally have better knowledge about what worked and what didn’t. But today, for those of us comfortable enough to spend our time writing speculative blog posts, survival has stopped being an issue, replaced by prosperity. And the way you become prosperous in a society like this is by finding a functional niche and filling it, by becoming an effective cog in the machine. Hence, the comfortably retired are those who have spent their lives avoiding moral problems and focusing on a single, narrowly-defined task, which is the exact opposite of the conditions required for the development of wisdom. When we talk about old people being “set in their ways,” then, we are talking not about a natural phenomenon but about a constructed dynamic. And we are talking not about a simple status quo preference, for conditions such as staying in the EU, but about traditional values, such as supporting racism.

I don’t know if there’s anything “to be done” about this, exactly, but I do think this means we need to keep our guard up. There’s a real threat here: the future must not be sacrificed to the past. This may be a bit melodramatic, but I really am reminded of the story of Abraham and Isaac. It’s a rather important story, since it asks something that is very close to being the only question that matters: if god commands you to kill your son, do you do it or not? That’s basically most of morality right there. The original story, though, pulls its punch, which is rather unbecoming for a story about the mystical profoundness of faith. The fact that Jehovah doesn’t actually want Isaac to die means there’s no moral conflict; the only problem is that Abraham guessed wrong about his god’s will. And even that doesn’t get the story anywhere, because to believe there was a real decision being made here, you’d have to believe that Abraham would be punished for “disobeying,” meaning he would be punished for making the choice that Jehovah agrees to be morally correct. So the story as it is is incoherent. Faith isn’t merely about obedience, it’s about loyalty to the truth that lies behind individual acts.

There are two possible ways to fix the story such that it actually makes a substantive moral statement. In one, Abraham disobeys Jehovah, saves Isaac, and is punished for his transgression. He bears the burden of his decision for the remainder of his life, but he believes without question that he did the right thing, that his god would never truly command a child sacrifice, that he acted in accordance with the true will of the divine. He dies in agony, unforgiven, with only the implicit comfort of having protected his family, of knowing in the deepest part of himself that, god or no, he did the right thing.

In the other, Abraham kills Isaac, Jehovah declares him to be truly faithful, and everyone lives happily ever after. The end.

3 responses to “Wisdom is wasted on the old

  1. I do not believe those polls. They were wrong in predicting the outcome and I think they are wrong now. I thought it was a secret ballot. In my city (Southampton) it was mainly young people that voted out that I talked to. They were all races, they were the plumbers, the apprentice builders, the stevedores, the girls that couldn’t find work in shops, or work in the health service because they couldn’t afford the student fees to become a paramedic or didn’t have enough brownie points for ‘positive discrimination’. The couples that couldn’t find anywhere to live and had to remain with their parents, the young people on 0 hours contracts. The young people I meet say they have no future and they are not allowed to talk about it for fear of ‘offending’. The Labour party used to represent people like this but now they just represent Guardian readers.
    Just saying what I have observed personally.


    • On the subject of the establishment left’s failure to provide a real future for people being left behind by globalization, you’ll get no argument from me. The EU probably did deserve to get kicked in the dick. The problem is that valid discontent is being channeled in unhelpful directions, which is precisely where the guidance of theory is required. Regardless of anyone’s intentions, the Brexit vote has had the practical effect of emboldening explicit racists. It’s correct to sympathize with people who are being harmed, but suffering is not a good excuse for bad behavior.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Racism has been on the gradual increase, unfortunately, whether there was a Referendum or not, particularly against followers of Islam. This current spate since the referendum has being stirred up by the “Pie and Mash Squad” – (look them up) a young extreme right wing section of the British Movement who had organised racist marches and laminated “go home” notes ready to put in children’s school bags the very day after the Referendum, regardless of the outcome. The extreme right wing have cottoned on to a discontented youth and is grooming them, just as they did with Teddy Boys in the 50s, Skinheads in the early 70s and Punks in the early 80s. It was the Anti-Nazi league’s ‘Rock Against Rascism” that turned that trend. Something like that will be needed to stop it. Hopefully with the vote gone the way it has – it will mean that these right wing groups will no longer be needed. UKIP has already fallen apart and Farage resigned.


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