Thursday, January 3, 2013
Old age and the biology of hate
In his last speech to the House of Lords as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams lamented society’s attitude towards older people. He said: "It is assumptions about the basically passive character of the older population that foster attitudes of contempt and exasperation, and ultimately create a climate in which abuse occurs" and referred to estimates that a quarter of the older population is abused one way or another.
This comes against ghastly stories of the mis-treatment of older people by their nurses in old peoples’ homes, often verging on outright cruelty, stories that are repeated annually throughout the country, and probably mirroring similar stories in many other countries as well.
I believe that the Archbishop showed wisdom and compassion in choosing the theme for his last speech and in speaking up for older people, but he did not go far enough in his analysis.
I have long wondered whether we are not biologically programmed to dislike and even hate older people for being older, just as we seem to be biologically programmed to love vulnerable and defenseless young children just because they are younger. The latter merit our attention and care while the former our avoidance and, where occasion permits, our cruelty and mis-treatment of them.
I have no scientific evidence for this belief, though there might be such evidence somewhere. But if my analysis is correct, or turns out to be correct, then it is not that we have “assumptions about the basically passive character” of older people that leads to their mis-treatment, as the Archbishop believes, but something biological and therefore much more difficult to control.
Of course, the hatred is probably more easily directed against those older people who are not members of the family, or at least the immediate family. But even in that context, older people are not immune. In the Prologue to his autobiography, Bertrand Russell wrote that one of the things that had made him suffer was the sight of “helpless old people a hated burden to their sons”.
If we are biologically programmed to dislike older people at best and hate them at worst, especially when they are not members of our family, then it is right, as the Archbishop suggested, that they should be given some kind of state protection, for example by appointing a national Older People’s Commissioner.
Society does, after all, police other biological urges that are difficult to control. It is perhaps time to introduce severe punishment for those who heap so much misery on the helpless in our society.
But that of course leaves another aspect which society simply cannot control. The dislike of old people, and their avoidance, are no doubt the source of much misery and alienation for them, and I just don’t know how society can combat that. We cannot, after all, legislate against dislike though we should be able to do so against its consequences