Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Invisible Pachyderm: Ageism in Science and in Radical Communities

There is a big Elephant in the Room, a large old pachyderm nobody is willing to see. Certain widespread prejudices that have been entrenched in the scientific community since time immemorial have come under the spotlight in recent years (primarily sexism and racism, and to a much lesser extend ableism). This certainly does not mean they have been eliminated, far from it, but at least a certain degree of awareness has started to circulate within the community, and some attempts (largely inadequate) at addressing the problems have at least taken place, sometimes, somewhere. On the other hand, radical communities, by which I generically mean variously organized groups that self-identify with radical politics (I will mostly focus on anarchist communities for the purpose of the discussion here), have made it a part of their platform from the beginning to fight against these old prejudices, seen as oppressive power structures. Yet in both communities the same large invisible pachyderm is roaming the room unhindered and entirely unnoticed: the elephant of Ageism.
(Banksy, Elephant in the Room, 2006)

Let me start with the scientific community, and let me focus in particular on the community of mathematicians, because that is where Ageism is most brutal and barbaric. Mathematics is a beautiful and highly rewarding intellectual activity, with its own intrinsic beauty and poetics. However, this is not how it is perceived by a part of its practitioners. I am not talking here about how the general public perceives mathematics, the global catastrophe of the "oh, I never liked math in school" type, the global catastrophe of school in general. I am talking about professional mathematicians and how they relate to their own creativity. There is an unfortunate widespread tendency to view mathematics as a form of gymnastics, that is inculcated into promising young people at an early age through other global catastrophes like the mathematical olympiads and various similar competitions, which perpetuate an ideological view of mathematics as a competition sport, rather than as a creative intellectual activity. The rhetoric implicit in this view and the language employed is akin to the fascist mythology of the muscular body (adopted by stalinists with equally zealous fervor), forcibly imposed upon an intellectual pursuit, where it really should not belong.

Of course, there is a significant gap between the mathematical competitions for young kids and the actual work of a research mathematician: not all good early mathematical gymnasts become professional mathematicians and certainly a large part of the most prominent professional mathematicians had nothing to do with the circus of mathematical gymnastics in their early years. However, there is enough overlap that traces linger. There have been long (and usually not very interesting) discussions in the mathematical community on the distinction between mathematicians who are problem solvers or theory builders (sounding suspiciously like body builders). Of course these are both distinct aspects of mathematical creativity, and different creative persons express themselves in different styles. Not all novelists or poets write in the same way, not all painters or musicians compose in the same style. There are many other distinct aspects in mathematical creativity, however, and I believe that's not where the focus should be. The problem the rhetoric of muscular mathematics generates in the community is best exemplified by the typical question you hear professionals ask to and of each other: "what is the hardest theorem you've proved?". It's never "what is the most beautiful structure you have discovered?" or "what is the most surprising unexpected connection you have uncovered between seemingly unrelated mathematical phenomena?": after all these are some of the most exciting things that happen in mathematical research... but no, it is only the "hardest" (turgid?) that matters. Why? Well, because problems gain notoriety not necessarily because of their intrinsic beauty, or their wide applicability, but a lot more easily because some other big-muscle-dude tried to solve them before and couldn't: enough of a line of big-muscle dudes, and there's your famous problem. The next even muscular dude that comes along and solves it wins all. All right, now imagine for a moment if music, art, and literature were running along the same principles, what an awful disaster for humankind that would be! So where does Ageism enter this picture? Naturally, once the emphasis is on mathematics as a thinly disguised metaphor of the muscular (male) body, this casts it immediately into an Ableist and Ageist frame. There comes the absurd mythology, repeated like an obsessive mantra in the community, of the "mathematicians can only do their best work before the age of forty", as if they would be some kind of cinderella whose carriage of mathematical knowledge turns magically into a pumpkin at the stroke of their fortieth year. You are offered the pathetic spectacle of endless hiring committees made of mathematicians, debating on whether that thirty year old candidate may be too old for that full professor position: yes, in principle discrimination on the basis of age is not allowed, but where is that principle hiding? I never saw it getting into the room. Imagine for a moment if a similar discussion would take place in a hiring committee with age replaced by race or gender, how would that sound then? You can also observe the even more depressing case of that famous mathematician who is now 90 (a friend, no names, sorry) who established himself as one of the best mathematicians of the 20th century and still feels under enormous stress and pressure to prove himself by attacking some of these fucked up "big problem" (big, hard, turgid, whatever) to defend himself against the all encompassing Ageist prejudice. Mathematics as a war of all against all, relentless and meaningless. A landscape where one should see beauty, pleasure, and enjoyment reduced to a scorched earth. It drives me to tears just to be forced to witness all this. Ageism in mathematics (the rest of science is not off the hook: this is just the worst case example) is widespread, tolerated, indulged in, and largely actively encouraged.

Things get even creepier when we move from science to the fringe of science, that area in between science and fiction (or, better still, in between science and market baloney) that is largely populated by the wealthy Silicon Valley capitalist sharks. There the fascist mythology of the young and muscular body is overt and explicit in the obsession for the magical potion of eternal youth, developed courtesy of the technological singularity no less, and restricted for the use of a selected wealthy elite of aging narcissistic white males who are structurally unable to come to terms with their own mortality. This may sound like a strange statement coming from a person like myself, who generally sympathizes with Transhumanist ideas and is largely involved in the anarchist version of the Transhumanism movement (I'll come to anarchism soon). However, the version of Transhumanism I sympathize with primarily advocates an aggressive and fast developing version of what modern medicine has been doing all along, namely the improvement of the quality and extension of human life through whatever means science and technology can provide, and equal access, for all humankind, to the benefits of advanced technological innovation. This is a far cry from the elitist pseudo-religious resurrectionist fantasies dressed up in techno-scientific language that populate the fascist leaning fringe of Transhumanism.

It is important not to conflate, in this discussion, the problems of Ageism and Ableism, although they frequently manifest themselves together, especially when the aging process also involves some loss of physical ability. I prefer to focus here only on the prejudice related to age itself, because that is indeed the elephant in the room that is hardly ever confronted. This is the prejudice that assigns a lesser ability, capacity, or a lesser value, to an older person. Most people (like good wine) improve with age. They tend to become more interesting, more knowledgable, more sensitive, less violent, less aggressive, less prejudiced, and generally better human beings when they get older. So why is this generally not valued and not even acknowledged, even if it is under everybody's eyes? In the case I discussed above, of the dynamics within the scientific (and specifically mathematical) community, the main reason seems to be that aggression, violence, prejudice, and insensitivity are the qualities that are implicitly valued, hence their general decrease with age is regarded as a loss of value, not as an improvement. In the case of fringe-transhumanities, an irrational fear of human mortality appears to be the motor behind the profoundly Ageist stance, combined with the narcissist ideal of consumerist young-looking Hollywood-style bodies. It was a long process in the history of humanity to get rid of the religious fantasies of eternal afterlives and embrace the value and importance of human mortality. This does not mean, of course, that we should not struggle to extend and improve human life with all the current means and the wonderful future possibilities that science provides. It means recognizing that "immortality" per se is not just a physical impossibility like perpetual motion (the second law of thermodynamics, anyone?) but also a childish fantasy. "Fighting old age" is a horrible expression that should be banned from the transhumanist vocabulary: fighting illness and improving and extending human life, sure. Aging, however, is an important process that makes better people. Fighting the better part of ourselves will be hardly an improvement on the human condition.


This brings us to the radical anarchist milieu. With all its dedicated fights against all forms of oppression in society and in interpersonal relations, with its ideal basis in the human capacity for empathy and mutual aid, it is still unfortunately marred by an enormous widespread and overt Ageist discourse. Inevitably, when young people see themselves as revolutionaries, they want to overthrow "the old" (the terminology used in the language is already telling) in favor of "the new" (but read also "the young"). Revolutionaries necessarily look more towards the future than towards the past, or so they are inclined to think. However, there is no Revolution without memory, and preserving the memory of the past is a crucial part of building the future (from the memories of the people who fought in the anti-fascist resistance and the Spanish Civil War, to all the people who experimented at building a better world in the past generations). Maintaining a multigenerational connection is crucial to any radical movement. It is not just this, however. Even in the setting of radical communities there are widespread mythologies that need to be debunked. One of the most dangerous myths is the idea that older people are necessarily (or at least prevalently) conservative. Certainly, if one looks for example at the situation in the US, it is true that the constituency of older white males is overwhelmingly conservative compared to any other population in the society. However, the people who belong now to that constituency grew up in an environment like 1950s America where young white males were extremely likely to be already very conservative. The old conservatives of today where the young conservatives of yesteryear. The old racists of today were the same young racists of the times when lynchings took place on a regular basis. The myth that young revolutionaries turn into older conservatives is just that, a myth. Young revolutionaries turn into older (and perhaps more experiences and wiser) revolutionaries. There is nothing intrinsically conservative about older people, like there is nothing intrinsically revolutionary about younger people. There is people and there are life experiences, and there is intellectual understanding, both of which have very good chances of improving along with the aging process. The role of young and very young people is crucial to any radical revolutionary movement, and so is the role of old and very old people. Any radical community that is not seriously age-inclusive is not truly radical.