Age cannot wither us

Age cannot wither us

A mosquito or something like it took me for a free lunch on Saturday night, leaving three lumps on the right side of my face. I might feel disfigured, but I suspect like most people, much as though I’d like to think I had such beauty to be marred, the reality is a little less exciting.

Age doesn’t help of course. It’s another common aspect of human experience, that we can look out on the world through the same (old) eyes and think we’re not much changed, until we catch sight of our reflection and are forced to acknowledge that, really we have.

This might not be the end of the world (that will come later). A female friend told me a few years ago, when we were both in our early 40s, that she thought young people had a glowing beauty which was unique to youth. Another remarked in a separate conversation that young faces had a blandness which made them uninteresting. Both statements seem true to me, though I’d always want to stand against the cultural fascism which seems to think that only those under 40 could be emotionally interesting for any audience.

Mid-life crises

Middle-aged men don’t help the situation, apparently needing to ratify their illusions of an enduring youthfulness by partnering with much younger women, as if women of their own age could no longer make them feel good about themselves. I’ve even heard it argued that once women hit the menopause they no longer have the hormonal capability to attract the Darwinian male. Men who think this way must have egos that are stronger than their sex drives, or they just don’t get out enough.

Women paradoxically don’t help these sad male illusions by privileging “personality” defensively over good looks. It seems too that the enduring puritanism of the 19th and 20th centuries still urges many women to play down their sexuality, as if it was something best minimised (while I think it’s entirely reasonable for any individual to have little interest in his or her sexuality, it seems to me there is no fundamental difference between men and women here, and any apparent differences have been culturally conditioned). Male sexism also sustains these guarded feelings, and it’s about time we all grew up.

Thinking fast and slow

So far, so conventionally liberal, but there is too an uncomfortable “fundamental” truth that we need to acknowledge, which is that good looks are influential, at any age. There has been some academic research which suggests that better looking individuals have better chances in job interviews. While this is clearly wrong in the sense that our looks have little bearing on our capacity to do a job, it’s more understandable when an interviewer or interview panel is faced with a 50/50 choice (all other things being equal).

I said it’s understandable rather than particularly defensible, but then we need to understand it better, because this appears to be a compelling aspect of human behaviour. This blog was prompted in part by a reflection from Alain de Botton on why we marry the wrong people, which among other things noted how important the way someone looks might be to our judgements. He’s not suggesting that matinee idol allure will overrule every other consideration, but noting how much we will extrapolate from features which (for whatever reason) we might find compelling. This chimes too with Daniel Kahneman’s ideas about our predilection for instinctive judgement, and how it might lead us astray.

I’m not suggesting that good looking idiots will continue to command our attention when they open their mouths, but only that in the many greyer areas before we’re faced with idiocy we generally give more credit than we should to the physically attractive.

We can’t simply discount these intuitions. We won’t begin to discard them by saying “appearances don’t matter”. We’ll only deal with them if we can notice how and when they operate in our own judgements. We’ll only deal with it too by acknowledging how and when superficial judgements are all we need. Prejudices about appearance can feed the snap judgements we make all the time, but that speed can be necessary to make the most of the limited time we have available. It’s wrong to demand that we consider the full humanity of every individual we encounter. Much of the time those encounters are simply functional, and while I’d agree that our default behaviour should always be at least polite and considerate, we usually don’t need to look much beyond the function (getting your hair cut, or a cup of coffee). Prejudice about appearances may well be operating in these encounters, but it doesn’t matter very much. It’s when we need to make finer or better judgements that we must look further.

Enduring love

Shakespeare as so often got there first. This blog’s title is from Antony and Cleopatra, that fine tragedy of two middle-aged people caught in a doting dotage. In a famous speech Enobarbus say of Cleopatra “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety”.

He’s not talking about the persistence of her famed physical beauty, but of the traits that make her captivating. Not least among the many prejudices that can skew our judgements we need to be open to the possibility that all people, including older people, have a vitality we can usefully attend to and value.

Talking of Shakespeare, de Botton’s chapter on marriage falls into a common error, suggesting that our more romantic ideas about the possibility of a lifelong coupling only appeared somewhere in the mid-18th century, as part of the rise of Romanticism. But there’s plenty of evidence against this, not least Romeo and Juliet (or Much Ado, As You Like It, Twelfth Night or indeed Othello, all written in the late 16th or early 17th centuries). It’s quite true to say that through most of western history marriage has been primarily a commercial or dynastic contract, but certainly since at least the Roman republic there have always been parallel narratives of emotional love.

de Botton’s right that our immediate feelings, shot through with the neuroses we carry from our childhoods, make a poor basis for such an important judgement about our future, but maybe the real answer is to dial down the importance of that judgement, to accept that we will almost certainly get it wrong, and there may be no other way to come to understand the neuroses and primal attractions that drive our judgements than to go through this process of trial and error.

If that’s the case, the best we can do socially is ensure that we minimise the pain of the fallout, equitably for both partners as well as any children. As individuals all we can do is learn from our mistakes, sometimes called the wisdom of age. Sadly I’m not sure the older are always much wiser, but at least their persisting beauty may be a little less superficial.

And now the bad news …

And now the bad news …

Alain de Botton’s newest book about the impact of news on our society has been generally panned by reviewers, who themselves have mostly been journalists. I don’t suppose de Botton expected anything else: asking a journalist to review a critique of journalism is much like asking a Jesuit to review a book by Richard Dawkins. The Jesuit might have some interesting things to say, but you know in advance where the weight of judgement’s going to lie.

The comparison is unfair because de Botton is consistently more interesting than Dawkins. Much of what he is saying is debatable, but that debate is a big part of what he’s trying to achieve. The questions he raises are good questions, not least, what is journalism for? de Botton takes a lofty view, arguing that journalism should (like art) be there to widen our understanding and imaginative sympathies, to make us better people, and in the process make our societies better places to live.

In this light journalism falls woefully short. de Botton suggests that part of the problem lies in the possibility journalists themselves don’t really know what they are doing or why they are doing it (very rarely is their work about holding the powerful to account, which in truth is quite a small part of what journalism can or should do).

In saying this, de Botton is alert to the phenomenon of news, the way it’s come to dominate so much of our lives. It’s like an omnivorous beast which needs to be fed. And while it claims so much of our attention, taking its place in the general torrent of information, it seems it has diminished our attention spans. This has proved pretty disastrous in politics, where politicians have colluded with journalists (usually advised by ex-journalists) in the shaping of the soundbite, at a stroke reducing political discussion to cliché and platitude, eliminating the possibility of nuance, or any admission of complexity in the case for a given action or judgement. Our politics have undoubtedly suffered, in what looks like an archetypical race to the bottom. It carries the usual irony of any race to the bottom, that nobody wants it, and yet it’s done in the name of giving people what they want.

Another way of framing de Botton’s fundamental question is to ask what we as a society need from journalism, not least because it seems likely that journalism as we know it will disappear in the next ten years. Or at least, printed newspapers will disappear. Predictions like this are always dangerous of course, because you can never tell how the flow of cause and effect will play out: the disappearance of printed newspapers might create an opportunity for new kinds of printed news media. All the same the writing is on the wall, otherwise known as smartphones and tablets, and it’s hard to see how printed papers will survive the vicious circle of falling circulations and collapsing advertising revenue.

News operations will move online, because increasingly online is where people expect to find and consume their news. It’s why all news operations are experimenting with their online presence, trying to ensure their survival, struggling with the reality of the Internet’s “everything should be free” culture as well as the difficulties of replicating old advertising models in a medium that’s unlike print or TV. It seems like this could be a good time to ask what we need from news, although for most of these organisations the answers are likely to reflect short and medium term commercial imperatives rather than de Botton’s bigger questions about whatever might make for a better society: the race to the bottom will continue.

Digital media bring different possibilities, not least the power to curate our own news feeds. The obvious concern here is that we will cocoon ourselves in a world we already know and which flatters our existing outlook. In truth this happens anyway: people reading the Daily Mail or Guardian are rarely looking to challenge their established assumptions. In theory the ability to follow links on the Internet could expose us to different viewpoints, though in practice this doesn’t happen often.

There may be a survival opportunity here. It’s been said often enough that we need trusted guides to the richness (and banality) of content out there on the interwebs. If we’re caught in a conflicted spiral of overwhelming content and limited time it might be that traditional papers can transform themselves into brokers of commissioned writing and other relevant pieces (the Guardian is probably the most advanced along this line). How all this will pan out in the future remains an open question.

In case we get too optimistic, let’s remember that de Botton is right to insist on the mostly negative and cheapening influence of the press on British society. It would be foolish to expect a transformation in the behaviour of the fourth estate as it tries to adjust to a changed landscape. If it’s too much to expect news media to lead demand, we need to see the difficulties of news as part of a bigger challenge about how we manage the fullness of information all around us. Above all this is an educational issue.

As I wrote in the third part of my extended blog about a new vision for education

“There’s no great value in seeking to inculcate any particular set of “facts” even through the secondary education phase. It’s a given that the system needs to nurture basic functional skills, but beyond this the underlying objective is to give learners a foundational sense of how the world is, what knowledge is “out there” and how they can take that information and deploy it through the evolving needs of their lives. It’s about nurturing the natural enthusiasm for learning carried by every infant, inspiring and exciting the continuing thirst for knowledge. It’s about laying firmer foundations for lifetime learning, which is what we need as individuals as well as in the changing world of work.”

Unfortunately current government ambitions to “improve” education are taking us in precisely the opposite direction. I’m generally sceptical of conspiracy theories, not least because they give too much credit to the intelligence of politicians, but if the Establishment itself has become so defensive that it wants to crush curiosity and capability in the general population, the emerging reactionary model for education will serve its desires very well.

In this light, subjects like media studies are not soft options at all. On the contrary Education Secretary Michael Gove’s vision of a patriotic history is about as soft an option as you can get. What we need in schools is a looser curriculum framework designed to widen experience and nurture critical thinking. Faced with critical readers the news media might finally give us the news we really need.

(nb de Botton gave a talk on his book this week at the RSA in London. I’ll post a link to the video as soon as it’s made available).