More broadly than any other time since the Civil War, Americans have experienced domestically the human impulse to “otherize.”
Cerise, maroon, raspberry, magenta, crimson, brick, fuchsia, cranberry, scarlet, rose.
Cobalt, periwinkle, turquoise, aquamarine, navy, indigo, cerulean, azure, cyan, teal.
Our ability to describe a color depends in large part on how grossly or subtly we choose to perceive it. Is the car parked across the street gray or slate? Are your loved one’s eyes brown or hazel?
The same is true regarding how we relate to the world. This election year, our country has been shaken to its core by the eruption of quakes whose warning tremors we have detected for a very long time. For many people, this eruption has created a welcome shift in the foundations of our society. To many others, it is a catastrophe. No matter which perception we may hold, one thing can be said for this past campaign season: More broadly than any other time since the Civil War, Americans have experienced domestically the human impulse to “otherize.” The tenor of our discourse has morphed even further away from civility and inclusion and toward embracing “us vs. them” rhetoric.
No matter if we are discussing political affiliation, economic position, or social identity, out of our mutual fear and insecurity we have decided to opt for perceiving people at one or the other extreme end of a spectrum rather than be willing to consider every individual as occupying a distinct and often shifting position along that spectrum. We use labels such as Trumpsters, Liberal Elites, Tea Party-ers, Lame-stream Media, Low-information Voters, Illegal Aliens, Beltway Insiders, One-Percenters, Ninety-nine–Percenters –– and many more that are too offensive to include here –– as convenient shortcuts that excuse us from the difficult task (and patriotic obligation) to do the mental heavy-lifting that requires us to think about how characterizing others impacts our lives.
The insidious thing about otherization is that it is applied to all kinds of distinctions: race, ethnicity, gender, ability, and sexual orientation, to name a few. And, of course, to age. We otherize members of each generation as an easy way of distancing ourselves from what we believe are the weaknesses of that stage of life. Older adults bear the brunt of ageism because most people believe in the patently false idea that getting older means nothing but deterioration and decline, and they fear such a future. But older adults, too, can be ageist toward successive generations, out of frustration that in their advanced years they are no longer counted among the young in our youth-centric culture.
It’s ironic that otherization should occur so easily regarding the issue of age. After all, it’s much easier to assign the label of “them” to people who are not of our own race, ethnicity, gender, ability, or sexual orientation. In these cases, “them” is a more permanent designation. But we are all aging. If we are fortunate and survive long enough, all of us eventually become old people. The “them” finally become the “us.” Aging is a slow transformation along the chronological spectrum, and it behooves us to keep that in mind. And as we age, our distinctions among one another increase, not decrease. Therefore it becomes more vital for us to detect the subtleties that make us individuals and to see one another in infinitely different shades of the hue we call “age.”
We Americans need to take a closer look at the damage of mistrust, fear, and hostility we cause in our insistence to otherize others as we place them at the far extreme on the spectrum of existence. Racially, ethnically, ably, sexually –– and generationally –– we are, first and foremost, humans. And secondly, we live in the United States and should be socially vested in the survival and prosperity of our nation. When we consider these two fundamental commonalities, those lesser boundaries that separate us from one another become less relevant and important.
Furthermore, it is not only more moral but also more practical to recognize and honor the diversity that is our country’s greatest strength. Now more than ever, America’s motto, E Pluribus Unum –– Out of Many, One –– must be transformed from a childhood-memorized slogan into a call to arms as we strive with one another to coexist and be interdependent. Let’s reject red and blue, young and old, and all other facile and intellectually lazy binary terms as we sensitize our skills of perception and welcome the natural variety to be found in any concept we categorize, be it color, political belief, or age.
It’s the only thing that can save us –– and our nation –– from our otherizing selves.
Article originally published at changingaging.org.