“Respect your elders.” Why, exactly?

This can be considered an addendum or aside or a long postscript to my last post in which I talked (OK, ranted) about getting into trouble with authority figures. Much of that authority, I have seen, comes from people ‘pulling age’ on others: “I’m older than you, and I know better and am wiser and have more experience, etc., and so therefore I can and must tell you how you should shit.” This is not a logically rigorous argument.

I interviewed the other day in what was probably the most subjective interview I’ve ever had in my life. In about fifteen minutes of vague questions to which equally vague answers were provided, because vague questions cannot demand specific answers, the interviewer had determined with near-absolute certainty and conviction that my job of three years as a strategist for a digital media organization wasn’t as much about strategy as it was about servicing, and offered to check in that department, the servicing department, if they had openings and would I be interested in that role?


So no objective test or other unambiguous methodology was used in the conclusion proffered. What got my goat, and is the subject of this post, is the fact that she went on to validate or rationalize her entirely–faulty–subjective impression by referring to her many years of experience in the field and what she is looking for and how I do not fit that particular bill. The offer of an alternate position I wouldn’t take was a poorly offered palliative. Basically what I’m trying to say is, a person’s competence can not be judged subjectively, and the current process of interviewing by the so-called quote-unquote informed opinions of one person means a lot of talent gets passed on for mediocre, but possibly more personable characters, which, great first impressions and suchlike, holds sway in interviews, as has been demonstrated by psychologists often enough to now consider like epistemological fact.

The other issue is the, also, psychological cognitive biases we are entrapped by. But they seem to get worse as we grow older, than better. Age seems to give people the warrant to be firmer and ofttimes absolute about their opinions, antonymic facts be damned. Scientists tell us that we–our minds–actively look for information that support our biases and scorn that which don’t. Which means we must be extra careful of our conclusions about everything: about the political parties we support,–I prefer to hold off judgment until positive outcomes are effected (and each outcome judged on its own merit, not a blanket “support everything this party says” ideology)–the kind of people we choose to associate–or not–with, even how we make choices about our future should be subjected to careful thinking, lest we fall into the trap of reverting to our intuition or “gut” to decide on what’s right or wrong, what’s best and what’s not. Worse, still, is foisting these views on younger people sometimes incapable of deciding what’s right, who defer to the older person’s viewpoint out of ‘respect’ for their age, or are just scared to be kicked out of their home or otherwise harshly reprimanded for ‘going against.’

Respect is also a two-way street. The opinions of someone younger are as important as those of one older. A person less knowledgeable is inviting you to lessen his ignorance, giving you the enormous responsibility of giving them the right guidance. To expect respect without giving any back is a rubbish and arrogant worldview.

Older people should consider the responsibility placed upon them: of being honest to themselves, in order to be honest to younger folks who depend on their guidance; of acknowledging the limits of their minds, so that they can better instruct their wards in the right ways of critical thinking; to be certain only within epistemic bounds, and to revise opinions when better information is available; these are traits that should be striven for and consequently handed over to the young ones. That is your heritage, is what you should leave behind. The alternative is, in today’s age of near-instant information access, your ill-informed opinions will be seen for what they are, and you will lose respect in the eyes of anyone but the most ignorant.

3 thoughts on ““Respect your elders.” Why, exactly?

  1. As someone who has spent almost entire teenage working, living, taking care of my own self, I highly relate to this.

    Age is a completely irrelevant factor for me in “respecting” someone. I don’t give a damn if you’ve seen more summers than me as a man/woman/professional/teacher. Only I know how my mind works and who the fuck are you to tell me what to think or behave.

    Additionally, I always believed that a higher a person is, in terms of age or social standing, the greater he/she should be questioned and inquired about. After all, if you’re oh so experienced, shouldn’t you by now have far more well articulated answers instead of “Because I say so!”

    Kudos to you man for writing what I have been feeling for almost a decade. Thank you for this. Thank you.

    1. I’m glad to know this post has resonated with you! Our generation gets a bum rap needlessly, but the fact remains that we’re more exposed to information than any generation before us, and more unsure as a result, of our position in the universe. I think that’s a good thing. Uncertainty makes us humble because we realize there are no absolutes, and we can better empathize with the next person as a result. In time I think we could teach our previous generations more than a thing or two, and do it generously and without a “told you so” attitude.

      1. Absolutely. All around me, contrary to popular notion, I see people who are of our generation, taking delight in reconnecting with our parents and grandparents through their technologies as well as ours. I have seen a friend enjoy showing his mother how to use an iPad to read e-books and I have seen a friend squeal in delight when her grandfather gifted her his Remington Typewriter.

        The sad fact is, generation gap is nothing but a myth and a prejudice perpetrated by media more than the youth. Our generation stands at a time of social change where not only are we capable of romanticizing and thus find simple joy in the past but also invite our elders to join us as we explore the possibilities of the future.

        Sadly, this is perhaps too naive and idealistic to be effective, but then isn’t every social change an idealistic notion born out of naive hope.

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