Stop infantilizing old people, please

As I write this, I am 55 years old. Like most people my age, I like to think I am a “young 55” or that I look good “for my age.” As I get older, I think I have become a little more patient, more accepting, less doctrinaire, and, yes, sadder and wiser. However, I have not become more adorable, precious, charming, or sweet.

Although I am not yet extremely old, I’ve already noticed that younger people I hardly know sometimes refer to me as “sweetheart” or “sweetie.” This seems to be a particular problem in healthcare settings. Some call it “elderspeak,” which is characterized by treating older people more as children than as fully functioning adults (I personally feel this demeaning language is often inappropriate for children as well, but I will take one thing at a time). For some reason, when people talk to older patients, they tend to slow their speech, raise the volume, and sing their sentences. In addition, every statement seems to become a question and second person pronouns are replaced with first-person plural pronouns ( e.g., “you” becomes “we”). You can read more about this phenomenon here.  At a time when nursing home workers are sharing explicit photos and videos of older adults on social media, complaining about “sweetheart” seems almost quaint, but both the diminutive terms and the more extreme demeaning media rob patients of their dignity and personhood.

Other people seem to think they are honoring older adults by treating them as mascots. Many videos on social media feature adults who are “adorable” or “precious” dancing, singing, or doing other activities they have no doubt done for their entire lives. The videos are presented with the exact same attitude behind videos of kittens, puppies, and babies. Samuel Johnson once said, “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Videos of the elderly seem to take the same attitude: it is amazing that older people might still do the things they love. If they make the attempt to engage in the activities that make them happy, the are “so cute.”

The consequence of assuming adults become children once again in later life can have serious consequences. For instance, healthcare providers often ignore the sexual health of older patients. As this article states, “prevailing misconceptions among healthcare providers regarding a lack of sexual activity in older adults contribute to making elders an extremely vulnerable population.” The result of this ignorance, is that STD rates among the elderly are increasing at an alarming rate. Although about 80 percent of adults aged 50 to 90 years old are sexually active, they are infrequently screened for STDs.

I am more concerned, though, about the basic harm of a society that treats its elders as mascots for amusement. As we age we lose the respect of our fellow beings and we lose our status as persons. For the most part, younger people don’t mean any harm, even if they are doing harm; they are acting out of ignorance. That being the case, I am here to help. The following are things you should know about your elders:

  1. They have and talk about sex. In a movie, it is always easy to get a good laugh by having an old person, especially an old woman, make any kind of statement that indicates she knows what sex is. Apparently, many young people believe that when you hit a certain age you become an innocent and naïve virgin, completely unaware of how people reproduce.
  2. They curse. This is related to the first point, but it slightly different. If you curse now, you will probably curse in 10 or 30 years. At what point do you think it should become funny or cute? Old people have the same right to words that everyone else has. Language is a human right.
  3. They still know how to do things. It isn’t amazing that someone who has danced since he was seven still likes to cut the rug when he is 80. Our abilities may diminish over time (some do and some don’t), but we don’t suddenly forget everything we’ve learned over a lifetime.
  4. They are still rational and intelligent. I realize we all suffer some cognitive decline as we age and some are affected by diseases that accelerate or accentuate that decline, but young people also suffer brain injury, disease, and other limitations on cognitive ability. Age is not a sufficient reason to believe someone is stupid.
  5. They’ve won the battles you are fighting. Somehow, your elders have survived. If you can manage the same, you should be honored, as you should honor them now. Any old person can tell you it isn’t easy growing old. Someone who has survived had the wits and strength to overcome many adversities. They could teach you a thing or two.
  6. They are persons. Here, I am using the word “persons” in a philosophical sense of someone who bears human dignity and value. It does not diminish as you age. If anyone has value, you do.

In case you haven’t seen any of the videos I described above, here is an example:

Teaching Ethics to Greedy Bastards

When a corporate executive, high-powered lawyer, or well-funded medical researcher is exposed for egregious unethical behavior, we often say it would have been a good idea for that person to have had a class in ethics with some follow-up training. We’d like to think that with the proper ethics training even the most heartless sociopath could be encouraged to at least follow some of the rules.

And if we can’t (note: we can’t) encourage bad people to be good people, what are ethicists worth? Well, our roles fall into several categories: 1. Providing ethical answers to dilemmas. 2. Offering ethical analysis of a particular problem. 3. Teaching ethical decision-making, which makes a good-faith assumption that the decision maker is sincere in wanting to be ethical. 4. Holding wrongdoers accountable for their behavior.

The first category is offered to clients who don’t want to take complete responsibility for their ethical decisions. Once a professional ethicist has offered an opinion on whether something is above board, an organization can say, proudly, “All our policies and procedures have been reviewed by someone with extensive training and expertise in ethics and found to be compliant with all ethical and legal codes.” Indeed, it can be a very good idea for an organization to get an outsider to review policies for possible ethical problems.

The second category is related, perhaps a subset of the first. When institutions encounter a particularly sticky issue, they might ask an ethicist to help them work through all the ethical considerations and explore how various ethical theories can help them solve the dilemma. Again, a useful role for the ethicist.

The third category involves training. Rather than giving answers to ethical questions, the ethicist can teach motivated individuals to analyze various conflicts on their own. Most people know how to think ethically, but they sometimes forget some of the considerations that professionals might find to be second nature.  Developing a more thorough approach to ethical approaches can benefit individuals and organization alike. It cannot, however, turn a bad person in to a good one. Evil people don’t lack ethical tools—they lack a conscience.

So, what do we do about the evil people? An important role for ethicists, in my considered and passionately held opinion, is to cry foul when individuals and institutions engage in egregious behavior. And when ethicists disagree on what is an egregious action, fervent debate erupts in the public sphere, benefitting the public and everyone involved, or so it should be. When ethicists sound the alarm that some behavior is abhorrent and shameful, a public chorus against such actions can at least ensure that the bad actors confront public scrutiny.

Think it doesn’t work? Remember in 2011 when executives at Transocean received bonuses for their safety record after the explosion in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 and sent millions of gallons of oil streaming into the water? After public outcry, the executives thought better of keeping those bonuses and donated them to the Deepwater Horizon Memorial Fund. Social regulation pushes and pulls behavior through honor and shame. In responding to abhorrent behavior, Kwame Anthony Appiah says, “Shame, and sometimes even carefully calibrated ridicule, may be the tools we need. Not that appeals to morality—to justice, to human rights—are irrelevant.”

Most of us evaluate ethical theories in the following way: Knowing that I am an ethical person, which ethical theory best fits my behavior? Following this method, we can all justify our actions through theoretical ethics as we simply seek out the theories that validate our behavior. Given that we all have justification for our behavior, public outcry is not likely to immediately shake our perception of what is appropriate, and, indeed, the public rarely speaks as one voice. Further, the common view is often wrong, or so I judge it to be. Bertrand Russell once said, “In view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.” Indeed.

Many people, especially those in power, feel their behavior is beyond reproach. They seem to think they could not have gained power if they were not deserving of it. Public outcry and public discourse, can remind them that they are, in common with the rest of us, flawed and fallible human beings. What this means is that we must raise our voices, express what we find shameful and honorable, and join or create a conversation over morality, dignity, and justice. Only when we suppress our voices do we lose. Only our common humanity makes our salvation possible.

Arthur Levitt “Defends” Goldman Sachs

Arthur Levitt, the former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman and a senior adviser to Goldman Sachs, says no one puts customer’s first and the firm should stop saying they do. He says this in response to Greg Smith’s op-ed published on the day of his departure from Goldman Sachs. Smith, of course, said that Goldman Sachs was disrespectful of clients and did not put their interests first. Levitt thinks it is wrong to expect financial services firms to put the interests of clients ahead of their own. That would be unreasonable, and anyone who doesn’t understand that is just too stupid to even be doing business, apparently. Levitt said, “That’s not to stay that buyers should beware. It is to say there should be transparency. But on the other hand, let’s not create a fellowship of buyers and sellers that will march into the sunset.”

What he is saying, I think, is that the most successful firms are also the most ruthless. If they put their clients first, they will fail. This is the same reason so many athletes use performance-enhancing drugs. It isn’t that it is right; it is just that everyone is doing it, so it has become necessary to compete. More regulation and oversight might help financial services, but this doesn’t seem to occur to Levitt.

But it does occur to Matt Taibbi, reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. Way back on May 11, 2011, Taibbi reported on Wall Street and the Financial Crisis: Anatomy of a Financial Collapse, the 650-page report just released by the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, alongside Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. From Taibbi’s article:

“But the mountain of evidence collected against Goldman by Levin’s small, 15-desk office of investigators — details of gross, baldfaced fraud delivered up in such quantities as to almost serve as a kind of sarcastic challenge to the curiously impassive Justice Department — stands as the most important symbol of Wall Street’s aristocratic impunity and prosecutorial immunity produced since the crash of 2008.”

But we shouldn’t be too critical, right?

It seems absurd to even have to write about this in an ethics blog. Is there any ethical question here? The fact that anyone would defend fraud and client abuse is a sad indication of our current state of moral decay. How do we revive a sense of honor and decency in corporate executives? How do we weave a new moral fabric and replace the one that is soiled and rent?


Will technology destroy heroism?

While heroism is a concept without rigid definitions, I will loosely define it as putting one’s own life at great risk for the benefit of others. We may say that someone who developed lifesaving technology is a hero, but his or her laudable actions may or may not fit the description of heroism I’m trying to describe. For example, developing a life-saving vaccine is a laudable achievement for anyone, but some people have developed such vaccines by their willingness to first try inoculating themselves, knowing that their inoculations could kill them.  Similarly, those who may fly test aircraft they designed put their own lives at risk in order to benefit others.

In the past, technology created a heroic elite of sorts. Not many people had an opportunity to be the first person in space. Also, not many people had the education or experience to dream of how to inoculate someone against smallpox. People with the most advanced training would put their lives on the line to test new technology, leading to even greater advances in both knowledge and skill. These people saved lives, won wars, and opened the wonders of the universe to us all. They used technology to expand their opportunities to demonstrate their courage and commitment to human advancement.

It seems to me that something has changed, though. Unmanned spacecraft are now going deeper and deeper into space to return information we only dreamed of before, but the risk to humans has now been minimized. The space explorer now sits comfortably on earth as a machine takes all the risks of space travel. Unmanned drones now conduct what would have been extremely dangerous operations only a few years ago. We still need humans to fly and take great risks, but we can now imagine a time when all flight operations may be automated. The fighter pilot and astronaut may both become obsolete.  In medicine as well, new developments are frequently mechanized with risk to humans greatly reduced.

It is hard to find a reason to complain about this development. I would much prefer to have a robot disarm a powerful explosive than to have a human risk being blown to bits. Technological advances that reduce risk are welcome, and they will never eliminate heroism. What they do, though, is shift an emphasis from the elite heroes of the recent past to the more mundane heroes known throughout history. People will always risk their lives for others without the benefit of advanced aircraft, space travel, or obscure scientific knowledge.

People will continue to rescue others from fire and drowning. Foot soldiers will continue to fight battles on the ground, often in primitive forms of combat our ancient ancestors would recognize. People with brilliant but controversial ideas will continue to express them in the face of public hostility and aggression. And people will continue to put their lives on the line to defend democracy, freedom, and human dignity.

We are flawed. Redemption is possible.

This week a proposal to discredit the Occupy Wall Street movement was leaked to the public. The consulting firm (Clark, Lytle, Geduldig, and Cranford) would charge the American Bankers Association $850,000 to develop a campaign to destroy OWS. Included in this service is a search of OWS “leader’s” civil and criminal histories, including bankruptcies, tax liens, judgments, litigation history, and “other associations.”

Many people support the OWS movement because they have lost their homes, are bankrupt, have lost their jobs, and face a multitude of financial and social problems. Discovering that they have such problems should not take much work. All one has to do, really, is read the heart-breaking stories on We Are The 99 Percent. We are all leaders of this movement, and I hope we will continue to embrace the imperfect, the vulnerable, and the tarnished.

Everyone has problems, and everyone has a past, and everyone is human. As long as we are human, dignity is possible. As long as we are free our voice matters. I read a column today expressing sadness for Lt. John Pike, who pepper-sprayed students at UC-Davis. Indeed, he is a human being, and anyone one of us may have acted the same way in his circumstances. If he can speak as a human, flawed and vulnerable, I feel sure he will be forgiven and embraced. It may take him years to be able to face what has happened to him and express it.

Oddly enough, the CLGC proposal also paid a compliment of sorts to the OWS protesters. It says, “It may be easy to dismiss OWS as a ragtag group of protesters, but they have demonstrated that they should be treated more like an organized competitor who is very nimble and capable of working the media, coordinating third party support and engaging office holders to do their bidding.” They are certain that OWS is much like the ABA, a centralized and powerful organization looking out for its own interests. They don’t imagine that citizens may be motivated by a sense of justice and fairness. In their amoral world, they cannot imagine people who operate within a moral framework.

Also in the proposal, they mention that both the Tea Party and OWS supporters are angered by the bailouts of banks and the irresponsible behavior of the financial industry. It says, “This combination has the potential to be explosive later in the year when media reports cover the next round of bonuses and contrast it with stories of millions of Americans making do with less this holiday season.” No suggestion, of course, that executives should perhaps hold back on bonuses. Rather, they will simply find ways to manage public anger over their own greed, rather than curbing their greed the least little bit.

I said any human is worthy of dignity and respect and that redemption is always possible. It is clear that the financial industry is nowhere near redemption. They are not even near recognition that their own behavior is immoral and intolerable. They do not have a sense of shame. It is our job to show them that we have a sense of justice and a sense of honor. We must let them know we find their behavior shameful.