Where does your compass lie on this and other ‘isms’?

Oct 17, 2023 | Aging Successfully

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America, I am weary and more than a little bit perturbed. Weary and perturbed of a word, one that is at this point in time seems overused (or is it?). That word is ‘ageism.’

My weariness comes from all the reading I do about the challenges of healthcare navigation and aging in the US. I read tons or articles so as to remain abreast of the issues. Lately, I’ve been peppered by (Little Word – Big Issue) ageism.

It was becoming too much. Ageism this, ageism that. All day – every day and in every way, I thought to myself. Sheesh, I’m drowning here. So, I stopped reading and started deleting.

Controversial New Yorker Cover Oct 2023That is, until September 25, when the cover of the upcoming New Yorker was made available.

This cover had been set for the October 2, 2023 issue.

The great irony? October 7th was to be Ageism Awareness Day.

Realizing that the cover was making a political statement about politicians who may be past their shelf life, but even that is another matter and one that is open to interpretation. 

My first reaction to the image? It is ageist and ableist. Certainly in poor taste. 

Y’all, this one hit a nerve, and yes, I will opine in this post.

Politics aside, and whether or not we are questioning age as a marker for political office, the fact that the New Yorker poked fun at age and ability to this degree is, in a word, tasteless.

If The New Yorker wanted attention, they sure got it, but it may not be the kind they may have been going for.

Oh, they were slammed for the cover. Not just from the thought leaders or progressives, John Q. Public was weighing in on this one. 

Ageism is everywhere in our society. On TV, within job searches and the workplace, in healthcare, in schools, in Hollywood… And it is not just about becoming older, although reminders are constant (as brought to us by our youth-obsessed culture and the entire anti-aging products industry).

Too old, too young, too short, too fat, not enough, seemingly weak, too stupid. We could fill up a whiteboard with all the ways we belittle others, perhaps in an attempt to make our own selves seem okay.. 

Undeniably America has a long way to go with identifying what may be considered to be age-and ableist-offensive, and then trying our best not to support that kind of humor. Me, I simply do not like humor that hurts.

I made myself look at the cover for a long time. I considered those depicted, those involved in its production and publishing. Those reading (or who now will, what with all the buzz) and those who will review it 50 or 200 years from now. I hope that it is not regarded as a shining example of humor in the US.

For some relief, I set my sights on reading the outcry and feeling a bit smug that so many felt like me and that they took action to comment and offer rebuttal.

Barbara Raynor offered the most concise reaction of all the commentary that I read. 

Imagine if the visual here featured caricatured images of People of Color or Jews or actual people with disabilities–instead of older adults? Well, of course, you’d have to imagine it because no publication would have the audacity–or the bad taste–to print something like that in 2023.

My thoughts returned to those responsible for the cover. I felt a desire to know more about who drew it, artist Berry Blitt, and what was his (I’ll say it, America: limited) line of thinking. If any of you wish to contact him, I noticed his email address is offered on this website, here.

So, Barry submits the artwork, and the editorial team at The New Yorker gives the order to go to press with it. What also were their (limited) views, and who appointed them the ones with a finger on America’s pulse so that we all might find this funny? 

What’s the harm, one might ask.

Let me boil it down for you. Ageism and ableism are prejudices. If that were not enough, we are harmed by images like this one. When people accept and go along with this line of thinking, they then are complicit. That, too, can be harmful.

This prejudice can be perpetuated, carried forward, even unintentionally. It may occur subtly, at a level so low that we are unaware. Harm can be socially leveraged. We can become imprinted by seeing and accepting this kind of thing as a norm.

Because of the dangers of such imprinting, today is a time that I and many others are speaking out. I feel compelled to interrupt this pattern. 

Magazines and social media posts that have far reach also can perpetuate their school of thought. Imprints occur when others then accept it as normal or the way they “should” think. I believe that there is a social responsibility at hand here.

The New Yorker and its covers can provoke thought without belittling. They can muse and amuse without throwing entire demographics under the bus. They can set the stage for discussion or discourse without artwork that relies on one-upmanship.  

In this case, the offended are certainly speaking up.

Of all the commentary I read, Barbara Raynor said it best when she offered this summation in her post on LinkedIn. She provided some “Pro Tips” for the New Yorker Staff:

1) Old age is NOT a disability.
2) Regardless of age, it is NOT okay to mock people who have disabilities, be they on a walker, in a wheelchair, using hearing aids, or wearing glasses.
3) Prejudice of any kind is NOT funny. Period.
4) Older adults DO have a sense of humor–but we do NOT want to be treated as less than. For that matter, NO ONE DOES.
5) Lest you try to defend this ill-conceived cover (and cover story), the offender does NOT get to decide what’s offensive. Only the offended do.
6) If you’re lucky, you, too, may get to enjoy life in your 70’s, 80’s, and beyond–so images like this adversely affect you, too. Wake up. Wise up.
7) #AgingIsLiving. It allows us to learn from our mistakes. Perhaps you could learn from this one.

Ageism, ableism, prejudice – we’ll likely never eradicate it. We can, however, call ‘-isms’ to the fore. As a Patient Advocate, I may have positioned myself as a person who takes that action. I would like to think that we and many others are predisposed to look for the wrongs and then work to right them.

So, look and think, would you? Decide where your compass lies about this depiction. Make up your mind about where you stand on these kinds of issues. Opposing viewpoints are A-OK. I will hear your side if you will hear mine.

Nancy Ruffner is a consulting Patient Advocate and speaker who enjoys provoking thought and spurring others into action. She consults online with patients relative to healthcare navigation, eldercare and solo aging, and is a frequent speaker at conferences and events.