All this talk of intersectionality is useful and great, but it tends to disguise the ways in which the various -isms are different from each other. Sexism, for instance, is the only prejudice wherein which oppressor and oppressed live intimately with each other and have to interact on a day to day basis. Homophobia is the only one wherein the oppressed class is distributed randomly, and often invisibly, throughout every section of the population. Ableism is an oppression wherein the oppressor could, suddenly, at any time become the oppressed. And etc, etc.
I was thinking recently about ageism. It’s a weird one, because it involves two shifts. When we’re young, we’re oppressed: our elders look down upon us, infantilize us, and dictate the terms of our lives to us. And this creates a very natural bias against older people. Adolescence inculcates within us this view of older people as reactionary and authoritarian. And then we carry that view with us as we age. And when we are young, that’s perfectly fine. It is natural for an oppressed class to resent its oppressor.
But there comes a point, somewhere within our late twenties or early thirties, when this resentment turns into ageism. It’s a strange thing, because as we grow older, we gain power without even realizing it, and we use that power to revenge ourselves upon older people. Part of the reason for this, I think, is that whatever our field, we can always point to specific individuals who are older than us and have more power than us. For almost our entire working lives, power will be correlated with age. And this will allow us to continue to feel okay about our bias against older people.
For instance, my agent is six months older than me. He is powerful. He has the power to select clients for representation or to reject them. But the senior agent at his firm is much older than him. She has more power than him. So he might still be justified in feeling like he is not very powerful. However, if he had a bias against older people (which I don’t think he does, since he represents a number of older authors), he could still inflict considerable harm, because all of the authors who come to him have roughly the same level of power in relation to him.
I guess this is what people mean by intersectionality. The overall difference in economic and social power between older and younger people tends to hide the point that, at a certain point, being older becomes a handicap rather than an advantage. Powerful older people find themselves losing their power, and older people without power find it more difficult to succeed. Am I making sense here?
And that’s us, pretty much. That’s me. If I systematically recommend younger debut writers over older ones, then I am perpetuating a system of oppression. But it’s very odd to think of things in that way.
There’s a lot of rhetoric, in social justice circles, about ‘rich old white guys’ and how all these ‘rich old white guys’ are keeping everybody down. And I think that rhetoric is very troubling to older people, because one of those things is not like the others. Old people are not a privileged class.
Then, of course, the doubly weird thing about ageism is that we eventually become discriminated-upon once more. Someday our editors and agents and reviewers and awards voters will be younger than us. And we will see how they disregard our novels and stories in a way that’s not based on content or style, but, rather, on the basis of the blind dislike that they still bear towards us because, under their perception, we are the powerful ones.
And for those of us who’ve already achieved success, perhaps that will be fair. After all, if you are old and successful, then you’ve built both wealth and a following. You have a structural advantage that was given to you by your age. Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy might suffer slights, on account of their age, that they wouldn’t if they were younger. But it’s hard to argue that they’re oppressed.
But most older people don’t have those advantages. Many are just coming into their powers. Many are just finding their voice. And those are the ones who will never get the chance to be heard.