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The Next Taboo?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It took me all week to think of an answer to the question you posed in the previous post, “what practices are banal today, but in 100 years will seem unspeakably immoral?”  My gut response was to say boxing.  I figured that we are becoming increasingly sensitive to acts of bodily harm of all sorts, from dogfighting to bullying to gun violence to physical discipline of children by their parents.  This is not to mention that the American Medical Association has been pushing to ban boxing at professional since at least 1982, when South Korean boxer Duk Koo Kim died following a fight with Ray Mancini.  However, after getting caught up in watching the Robert Guerrero-Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight last week, and witnessing all of the hype and money it attracted, it became clear that boxing is going nowhere.   The crowd c0nsistently booed Mayweather (ironically also the clear crowd favorite) for his seemingly boring and passive style.  Rather than pummeling Guerrero in a knockout, Mayweather displayed his grace in his defensiveness, evading Guerrero and sneaking in quick punches here and there much to the crowd’s dismay.  In other words, the crowd booed Mayweather for not being violent enough.  During my own viewing experience, I similarly felt my morals become suspended and disengaged.  I too wanted more of a fight.

Two other events this week then gave me a clearer answer on what the next taboo might be.  Delaware became the 11th state to legalize same-sex marriage and the Minnesota House voted to permit same-sex marriage as well.  These milestones make it clear that in the not so distant future, we might look back at the illegality of same-sex marriage the same way we currently view various forms of institutional racism–absurdly immoral.  This is not to say that discrimination by race or sexual orientation no longer exists, but rather it is far more taboo than it was in decades past.  Similarly  discrimination against women, certain religious groups, and various ethnic minorities seem outdated (note: still existent) and immoral.  I recall as a child watching Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks’ racial-taboo-laden satire of Westerns and failing to understanding a joke about American discrimination against the Irish.  Later I read about the discrimination that the Irish faced upon immigrating to the U.S., and it seemed unbelievable as well as abhorrent.

Elderly Man Soaks Up the Sun along the Danube, via Adam Jones, PhD

Deducing that–at least in the United States–various forms of discrimination have become increasingly viewed as immoral over time, it occurred to me the answer to the original question you posed is that the next banal practice to become immoral will be yet another form of prejudice.  And my best guess is that it will be ageism.  The most obvious reason for this claim is that the elderly population continues to grow at an unprecedented rate–based on a recent census report the proportion of people over 65 in the United States will likely double by the year 2030.  Thus, ageism will become more of a pressing issue. Despite this, ageism remains understudied within social psychology, but two psychologists, Michael North and Susan Fiske are leading the charge with a systematic theoretical and empirical investigation of this topic.  In a review paper on ageism published last year, North and Fiske write:


Ageism appears in medicine, where medical schools underemphasize geriatrics (Levenson, 1981) and older people often face less aggressive treatment for common ailments, which are dismissed as a natural part of aging (Bowling, 1999, 2007). In the workplace, despite considerable research indicating that job performance does not decrease with age (e.g., Cleveland & Landy, 1983; Liden, Stilwell, & Ferris, 1996; McEvoy & Cascio, 1989), evidence indicates that older job applicants are rated less positively than younger ones, even when they are similarly qualified (Avolio & Barrett, 1987). Many older people also face discrimination in the form of abuse and neglect in nursing homes (e.g., Griffore et al., 2009; Malmedal, Ingebrigsten, & Saveman, 2009) and even within their own families (e.g., Coyne, Reichman, & Berbig, 1993; Gaugler, Leach, & Anderson, 2005; Pillemer & Wolf, 1986; Ramsey-Klawsnik, 2004). Still more disturbing, this form of ageism is likely underreported, due to caseworkers and doctors being less familiar with elder abuse than other forms of domestic violence (Nelson, 2005).

These practices seem staggering in their pervasiveness and point to how much we have overlooked prejudices toward the elderly.  I have to imagine that as the population begins to age, and as we gain a greater scientific understanding of ageism, we will experience similar moral outrage toward it as we do toward various forms of gender, race, and ethnic discrimination.  Furthermore, whereas many of these other forms of social discrimination often stem from feelings of social distance and outgroup biases toward people who are dissimilar from us, as North and Fiske note, “Age is the only social category identifying subgroups that everyone may eventually join.”  When discrimination affects us we tend to care about it more and view such a practice more in immoral terms.  Ageism thus seems a likely candidate for the next discrimination battle, but the question on where activism on this issue  will come from.  North and Fiske also are doing excellent work examining the sources of ageism and recently found that younger people (i.e., people 30 and younger) rather than middle aged or older individuals are most often the perpetrators of ageism.  I found this finding to be disconcerting, because younger people also typically represent the greatest champions of social equality and the most likely people to act against discrimination.  This raises the question of whether anti-ageism efforts must focus on changing young people’s attitudes or whether activism on this issue might come from the elderly themselves.  Regardless, as we learn more about age discrimination (and continue to age ourselves), my assumption is that ageism will become more of a front page issue.

Adam Waytz About the Author: Adam Waytz is a psychologist who studies the attribution and denial of mental states to other agents, and the moral and ethical implications of these processes. Follow on twitter: @awaytz

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Katatonic 7:12 pm 05/10/2013

    Young people exhibit ageism because they think they’ll never be “that old.” Or at least that was my point of view when I was younger and stupider.

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  2. 2. WHISTLEBLOWER 1:11 pm 07/24/2013

    In supposedly liberal Seattle in the supposedly liberal state of Washington at the supposedly liberal University of Washington the campus police as policy openly discriminate against elderly even former professors.
    Former(at 70) but still active scientists like myself(a physicist), having moved here for my wife’s health issues (she got no decent treatment whatsoever from the much vaunted but greatly disappointing University of Washington medical center)have been forbidden from attending any seminars and colloquia, (or even contacting any faculty by any means whatsoever) in any departments whatsoever under penalty of arrest. (And I was starting to do joint research with several professors in several departments and have many books and much property on UW campus). This is in direct violation of all federal funding agency federal laws. What one sees is the sociological-dysfunctionality of ageism in their FEAR, FEAR of new visitors with new ideas that come from older visitors since much of their public posture(this “STEM” mantra) is media-hype P.R. show-biz to ensnare the young ONLY. And this ageism reinforced by their police is most especially true of departments like psychology, as well as philosophy and earth sciences, with some ageism also in physics and mathematics(the most friendly). Why I have been told by professors half my age that “it is O.K. TO ATTEND SEMINARS/COLLOQUIA, BUT YOU CAN’T ASK ANY QUESTIONS NOR MAKE ANY COMMENTS”, even when they are about my work or fields that I was(and still am) an expert in, or in some cases the father of! To attend anything on UW campus, I must actually phone the UW police chief and get his permission, and I simply refuse to be treated in such a fascist ageism manner, reinforced by all department chairs, all deans, the provost(a PSYCHOLOGIST who many of you no doubt know!!!; just google “Provost University of Washington”), the president, the regents, and seemingly the supposedly liberal governor.
    University of Washington is a total disappointment with rampant police enforced ageism as official policy!!!

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