Power, Age and Maturity

At first glance, the minimum age requirements on various powerful positions seem unnecessary. Why should a meritorious individual be restricted from doing something that they would be good at simply because they are too young? Over the past few years and especially over the past few weeks, I have understood one of the reasons for these requirements: Power should be handed to people who have the philosophical backing to handle it; they should be grounded in the understanding of their role; they should not exploit the people who are newly under their power; they should know where the boundaries of their power are and where it is being used for exploitation. Age is a proxy for this maturity. Older people are assumed to have this maturity and younger people are assumed to be naive, immature and ignorant. This is never really true. Age is a bad proxy for maturity. It fails in both directions: Older people can be less mature (and younger people more mature) than their age would lead you to assume. Most of these failures are not consequential as the power that these old people hold in society is insignificant. But the power that they hold in your personal life can be considerable and this is what I will dig into in this post.

“Power corrupts …”1 is one of those phrases which is so popular that one needn’t even repeat the whole quote. I did not quite understand what it really meant. Sure, I understood the overall concept of it: Someone gets some power somehow; they become arrogant and unreasonable; the people around them try to take them down and are sometimes successful. But I did not understand the real-life consequences of it before. Now that I understand what the “corrupts” in that quote really means, I can see some past instances in my life where this principle was at work and where people had been corrupted by the power that they believed themselves to be holding.

Universities Are Small Ponds

The most memorable instance is from college. Professors in my college had a lot of power. They were instructors in courses where they had complete control over scoring, who passed the course, what their grade was. Their hard power was taken to extremes during the Bachelors and Masters project presentations which happened at the end of the fourth and fifth year of study. During the final year “Grand Viva,” there is a positively absurd air around them and their questions, as memorialized in this brilliant piece.

The ages of these professors varied. But most of them had only been in academia: Bachelors from a college in India, Masters from somewhere in America, Ph.D. in America and Post-Doctoral Fellowship in America or Europe. In their early 30s, they had turned up as an Assistant Professor with no real experience to speak of. They were big fish in a small pond. They did not know the size of the ponds that were out there, and they had no interest in finding out, for they had chosen to hole themselves up in a remote location inside an echo chamber where no one dare challenge their views.

As soon as they arrive, they were given a large amount of power. Some of them were made “Faculty Advisors,” a (mostly) meaningless position which required them to sign documents for a few students doing bachelors courses. While this position’s requirements were nearly non-existent, this process of getting your advisor’s signature on some document would strike dread into the heart of even the most ardent believer in the rot that are bureaucratic processes. My experience was perhaps slightly better than the worst ones and worse than the average experience.

My advisor would sign papers from 4:30 pm to 5 pm on weekdays. (What Kafka reader would expect government servants to work during the weekend?) During all other times, the papers would have to be dropped into his letter box and he would sign them at his convenience, which would generally take a couple days.

On one occasion, I had the (mis)fortune of having to get a signature by the end of the day due to a quirk in the course registration process that required each document to go to the same person twice and for them to give their approval once on paper and once on the computerized course registration system. I arrived at the advisor’s office at 4:40 pm, well within the 5 pm time limit. I knocked on his office door, which was at the center of a deserted fluid mechanics laboratory. After a few seconds, the door opened a couple inches. I could barely see his face and perceived a pair of piercing eyes which appeared annoyed at my presence outside his office door.

I had the paper in my hand (I had had the presence of mind to waste no more of his precious time than I needed to.) I started explaining what I wanted: “I need your sign to register for …” Exasperated with my attempt to explain the situation to him, he cut me off and said “Okay.” He proceeded to come outside the office and closed the door behind him. (He must have stepped out 1 feet or so and there was no invisible burglar hanging around behind my back. Perhaps he was ecologically conscious and did not want power to be wasted through an Air conditioner which kept his office at a comfortable 23 degrees, as the outside temperature was around 35 degree in the hot, summer weather.) He snatched the paper from my hands, placed it on a nearby table, signed it near the bottom, handed it back to me and disappeared back into his office. The quick glance that I caught of his office did not show me anything remarkable: It was a bare office with a lot of empty space, a computer, a table and chairs on both sides.

I went through this routine a few times during my 4 years under him as my advisor. There was no call for this kind of behavior. In his early 30s, he had clearly not understood how to handle power (or how to be a considerate human being.) There was no sign that he wanted to, for he seemed to enjoy this perverse dance and practiced it with everyone. In a college with tenured professors, there are no avenues from which professors might be challenged or evaluated for their behavioral quirks. There is no Human Resources Department that I could have appealed to for help. There was no Manager whom I could have sent an email to about this absurd behavior. Their positions are extremely secure and no professor has ever been let go. Even the most egregious characters, those who push the limits of even the most eccentric understanding of the state of “normalcy”, hang around for several decades.

88% Believe That Respecting Elders Is Very Important To Being Truly Indian

Another common pitfall of using age as a proxy for the ability to handle power is common inside families. In this setting, age is a pure proxy: There are no qualifying or redeeming qualities that one might appeal to. Nothing else is even worth considering as a criterion for absolute knowledge.

A recent Pew research center report confirmed this finding: 88% of the respondents said that “respecting elders is a very important part of being Truly Indian.” Due to the (rather unfortunate) linearity of our experience of time, it is always true that there will be people who are older than you inside your family. How often you meet them hardly matters as long as you are younger than them.

These are some of the common phrases that your relatives will resort to when you challenge their (often antiquated) beliefs with rational counter-arguments based in history and your understanding of how society has changed since the time that those beliefs were formed or found to be fashionable.

  1. You are young and don’t know how things are done
  2. You are young and don’t know anything
  3. You have lived away from your native place for too long and have no idea how things are done here
  4. You are trying to be different just for the sake of being different and you don’t actually believe in the things that you are saying
  5. I am older than you and you should not talk back to me

These phrases are mildly amusing to me. At 25, I have the devil-may-care attitude typical to people in their 20s. I have the temperamental luxury of using a combination of sentimentality and rational thinking when deciding things, heavily biasing towards the latter as much as possible. Any combination including rational thinking is anathema to the power-hungry, old person. Their power comes from a combination of people respecting elders (extremely common) and being sentimental (not uncommon).

The last phrase in the above list is worth examining some more. Children are often trained to not “talk back” to elders when they are being berated and to instead nod their heads and move along and do as the elders please. This turns out well for most kids; a minority of them seem to act out.

Obedience is conflated with tacit acceptance of the elders’ points-of-view. Obedience is further conflated with respect and good manners. I disagree with both these conflations and I believe that they are part of an insidious scheme to keep communities together.

(The conflations between obedience and acceptance, respect and manners is infuriating. I believe that I can have a respectful debate without accepting my interlocutor’s point of view, respecting them as a person with their own set of views, and staying within the boundaries of good manners. If it is truly impossible to do this, then surely the understanding of “manners” must be comical and absurd.)

People asking uncomfortable questions have introduced grievous rifts in religions and civilizations before. One need only look to the rise of Lutheranism (Protestantism) and the split of Christianity into the two modern sects of Catholics and Protestants. Luther’s questions were an attempt at challenging a practice that aimed to extort money from the followers of the Catholic Church. Even the Catholic Church, an institution as old as they come, could not provide a satisfactory answer and thus the revolution began. How the Catholic Church must wish that Luther had been taught never to question institutions that were significantly older than any human alive.

This historical weakness of civilizations to questioning individuals and the ultimate refuge of sentimentality is embedded inside our appetite to convince children not to “talk back” to elders. The same teaching also applies to people who happen to be young at the current moment.

I will attempt to boil down what I want to say: Believe in something and Act with conviction. As for what others will say when you do so, I will take a few lines from Seneca’s Letters:

You needn’t believe the chatter of the people around you: there’s nothing in all this that’s evil, insupportable or even hard. Those people are afraid of these things by a kind of general consent. Are you going to feel alarm at death, then, in the same way as you might at some common report? What could be more foolish than a man’s being afraid of people’s words? My friend has a nice way of putting things when he says that to him the utterances of the unenlightened are as noises emanating from the belly.

Letters From A Stoic (Seneca)

  1. This was first said by Lord Acton and his views on why power always corrupts are summarized in this essay