Thursday, January 20, 2011

A quick random thought about ageism

Last night, I was doing my usual midnight-on-vacation activity of surfing the internet before bed, and came across an amusing cartoon on Alas, A Blog. The comic, which was hilarious, involved Bernie Sanders, someone whom I've grown to admire and whose guts and integrity make me glad he's in politics. I posted it to facebook, with the message, "Love the bit about Bernie Sanders. Like a dear old coot like him would ever pick up anything more deadly than a pie chart."
Two seconds after I posted it, I thought over the word choice I elected: "Coot". I usually thought of it as a loving, endearing term, grandfatherly in a way, admiring. But it occurred to me I had never learned what it actually meant, so I looked it up on the Free Online Dictionary. "Definition: An eccentric or crotchety old person, usually an eccentric old man." I felt a bit uneasy. Eccentricity isn't in and of itself a bad thing, and I don't shy away from labelling myself as eccentric sometimes. But I am also aware that it is used as a coded term for someone who is not quite rational, someone who does not follow reason or common sense. Sanders, a self-described Democratic Socialist, much like myself, is probably frequently a target of such coded language. I can easily imagine his fellow Democrats calling him that in privy, as a way of saying that while his courage is admirable, his ideas and convictions are not to be taken seriously.
I thought of other words used to describe men of a certain age like Sanders, who didn't really fit into the dominant paradigm. Codger: "An elderly man, usually eccentric or old-fashioned". Old goat. Pops. I was reminded of Mike Gravel, whose failed 2008 presidential campaign was marked by many ideas I agreed with which mainstream Democratic candidates shunned subtly: Legalized marijuana use, gay marriage made legal, immediate end to occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, a lockdown on the sway of the Military Industrial Complex. Gravel was not given the same respect as Bill Richardson, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. The mainstream media treated him like a quaint, harmless old man with amusing ideas who was good fodder for amusing jokes.
With this reflection, I realized how closely disablism is tied to ageism. When you are young, mental disabilities are treated as frightening, unfortunate, and a precursor to violent actions. Elderly individuals however, are given an equally odious treatment: The intellectual validity of their opinions is almost always discarded, and they are treated with amusement and disregard. Even those who are not disabled in any way are treated like their opinions are a product of an imperfected mind, due to their age.
Neurotypicality equates disability with a breakdown of a "healthy" and "whole" mind, and therefore sees disability as an inevitable byproduct of ageing. The fact that it is attributed to "breakdown" is why youthful mental disabilities are tragic in the social narrative as well.
But it has the same root: The idea that disability can be equated with incompetence, stupidity, and lack of common sense. It condescends people with disabilities and those assumed to be disabled in some way, pushing us into the corner. Our language reinforces this by equating being aged with being "odd" or "off-kilter".
Well, time to hunt the dictionary for a more interesting way to refer to older people who give me courage and cause an upsurge of admiration in me.

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