Why are old white men so much worse than young white men?

November 13, 2020 • 9:30 am

When I open the latest issue of our student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon, I often get similar feelings as when I read HuffPost: “This rag is way too woke.” It’s especially depressing here because of the big gap between the students’ wokeness and the University’s ideals, which are to promulgate nearly complete free speech and to refrain from the University making any official statement about politics, morality, or ideology beyond those necessary to ensure that the University functions as an equal-opportunity venue for learning and exploring ideas. (See our list of “Foundational Principles”.) Both of these principles are meant to promote free discussion, in hopes that the clash of ideas brings knowledge, awareness, and learning how to learn.

Here’s an example from the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Protest and Dissent:

In our view, dissent and protest are integral to the life of the University. Dissent and protest should be affirmatively welcomed, not merely tolerated, by the University. Especially in a university community, the absence of dissent and protest—not its presence—is a cause for concern. The passionate expression of non-conforming ideas is 2 both a cause and an effect of the intellectual climate that defines this University in particular. In addition, dissent and protest—and public demonstrations by groups and individuals—play a role in the University’s educational mission: being a member of an educational community that values dissent and protest is, in part, how people develop as citizens of a democracy.

In contrast, many (but by no means all) of our students want repression of “hate speech”, deplatforming of speakers, the right to avoid punishment for disrupting speech, and, of course, defunding and eliminating the campus police. A major editorial in the new Maroon, for instance, bemoans the possibility that after our current President—Robert Zimmer—steps down at the end of this academic year, the committee chosen to select his replacement consists of uniformly wealthy and overwhelmingly white males. (That isn’t true: there are two women, one Hispanic man, and one black man on the committee of 12, in addition to Zimmer himself). The students are afraid that Zimmer’s replacement will be just like him, and want “faculty, staff, students, and community members” to be on the search committee lest the policies of Zimmer (including retaining the campus cops) be continued.  With a committee like that, we’d wind up getting somebody like George “Can I Pee Now?” Bridges, the invertebrate president of The Evergreen State College. In fact, the committee should strive to get someone like Zimmer, as he’s fought hard to keep the University of Chicago a bastion of free speech and unrestricted inquiry (he’s also been hugely successful in the President’s other job: raising money for the University).

It’s not the disparity of age, sex, and color between students and trustees or President that worries me (our Provost, by the way, is an Asian woman)—it’s the disparity between these two groups in what they think a university is for and how it should be run. The students want the purpose of our University to be social engineering, and preparing students to be social engineers; the faculty and administration want the students to learn and learn how to think; to bathe in and ponder rarified ideas. We don’t see the university as a way to inculcate students with certain societal values, but as a way to get them to think about and arrive at their own values.

Contrast the Founding Principles above, for example, with a booklet produced by our Leftier students, the Dis-Orientation Guide for 2020: 59 pages of wokeness that begins by repudiating our principles of free speech as inconsistently applied (they’re not) and rejecting the Kalven Report’s admonition for the University to avoid taking official political stands. In my view, if our President is replaced by pliable, woke, and invertebrate Presidents like those of Evergreen State, Yale, and Smith, the unique aspects of the University of Chicago will be gone. Every class would begin with a land acknowledgment, and the faculty would have to “get in the canoe”. (Do watch that video for a horrifying dose of faculty and administrative self-abasement.)

Zimmer and some of the trustees are, of course Old White Males, a trope that appears in the same issue with an editorial with the customary critique of “core curricula” everywhere:

Placing readings in relation to current world events would not only deepen students’ understanding of content, but it would widen the context under which we could apply it later on. Untangling the pages of dense theory written in the 17th century generally does not do wonders for student engagement—it is when what we read is made relatable that it becomes interesting to us, and it is then that we become motivated to push our reading further.

The solution could be as easy as including more authors of different races and backgrounds: namely, less [sic] old white men.

I’d have some sympathy with this—after all, diverse voices emit diverse ideas and viewpoints—if the core hadn’t already been revamped to be diverse in many ways. Check out some of the courses offered, and I’ve put part of a pdf below.  You can explore more sample courses and sample texts by starting here (the “general education requirement” of 15 courses that constitutes the Core), and clicking around. Check out “Civilization Studies” for a panoply of courses that will appeal to those who want more ethnic and gender diversity. The Core is superb, and is one reason many students come here.

So I absolutely reject the idea that the core, which comprises considerable and diverse courses, is heavily conditioned with too many “old white males.” Of course if you’re interested in Western Civ or Western Literature, you’re going to find it OWM-heavy, for Western civilization developed at a time when women and minorities were shoved to the margin. Come back in 200 years.

But what I don’t understand is why the denigration of OLD white males? Are YOUNG white males better? Shakespeare had already produced some of his finest work by age 40, and I could name many pillars of literature and art, who, even though white, made their contributions when young.  Is the underlying idea that old white males are more conservative than young ones? Well, maybe now, but if you go back a few hundred years, even young white males would be seen through modern eyes as not only conservative, but often bigoted.

What we have here is again a conflict between two ideals of liberalism: diversity and anti-ageism. If it’s racist and sexist to denigrate authors because they’re white and male, then it’s triply pernicious by being ageist and adding that they’re bad because they’re old.

And to those who dismiss white men because they’re old, I have two words in response: Bernie Sanders.

56 thoughts on “Why are old white men so much worse than young white men?

  1. This topic has always been a conundrum with me. I understand and agree with both points of view which is why I have never been able to come up with a solid stance on this one. I believe in expressing points of view regardless of how far in outer space they may be, but I also don’t know what to do about people pushing hate speech either. It’s speech that isn’t intended to generate communication or exchange thoughtful ideas – it’s not productive in any way. So, what to do???

    My impression when some refer to “old white men” – they may be referring to the way they think, rather than their physical being. Bernie Sanders may physically be an old white guy, but he doesn’t think like one.

    1. Old White Men also represent a declining demographic — white people will be a minority after around 2050. There will be no majority, which means the “Great Men” won’t necessarily represent future directions.

      I love to study history, but “who led us here,” is only one question it answers. “Who did we step on to get here?” and “Who led us here but got forgotten?” is also fascinating to me. So, OWM are part of the curriculum, and not 100% of it (as was true in the past) seems like a step in the right direction.

      Or, to put it cynically, the students of the future will not be future OWM, so they may not feel any affinity with them or be inspired by them. My advisor was one of the first women in our field, and the only woman in her academic department. I think it really helped me to have her as a role model.

      1. “Or, to put it cynically, the students of the future will not be future OWM, so they may not feel any affinity with them or be inspired by them.”

        Do these students plan to take certain actions to ensure that they do not become OWM? At what age does one become an OWM?

    2. He does in some ways. He seems very locked in to his way of thinking even though it keeps failing. Some would consider that taking a principled stand but others might think some adjustment to reality would be a more reasonable response.

    3. I think a lot of people consider “hate speech” to be a classic slippery slope problem. Every argument tends to be construed as hate speech until nothing can be discussed.

  2. And via Andrew Sullivan, this from Chicago happened Wednesday……vis a vis campus police and getting rid of it.

    “A 12-year-old boy was shot multiple times in Chicago while picking up school supplies with his father, relatives and police said.

    Lamar Davis sat in a parked car with his dad Wednesday in the city’s Lawndale section, when someone in a maroon SUV rolled down a rear window and opened fire with a .45-caliber handgun, hitting the youngster in the back, hip, leg and buttocks, the Chicago Tribune reported.”


    1. My Fourth Year at Chicago they tried to come up with a “Maroon” mascot. I believe Bugs Bunny was suggested. A friend of mine wanted a Rastafarian, since maroon or cimarron was a term for free runaway slaves in the islands, who in Jamaica gave rise to Rastafarianism (his explanation).

      1. Good one.

        I was literal:
        OWL=owl (not literally–sometimes used in Canada anyway to describe a somewhat annoying old guy.)

  3. I’d like to comment on interpretation of figures like Shakespeare:

    “Simple” factors like modern dietary choices and availability, vitamin supplements — including maternal —, health maintenance, etc., can have enormous consequences. That means interpreting figures like Shakespeare, Mozart, Leibniz, etc. has to factor this in. Though their output is undeniable, what it means beyond that is unclear to me.

    On the other end of the time frame, even a difference of 50 years means families today are much better positioned than back in say the ‘70s for favorable outcomes. Consider lead (Pb) paint, or leaded gasoline, to start with. Those products required government regulation to stop permanent health problems.

    I don’t know what all that adds up to, and I certainly cannot use it to make truth claims about Old White People or any other age group being “better” than any others.

  4. I think the issue with old people is that we are by nature conservative. Not in the liberal/conservative sense, but in the sense that we have had experience of the world, and seen what does and doesn’t work, and what can be achieved or not achieved through political or social action. Youth wants to go fast, and sees every problem as an indictment of their elders or something that is completely new. They lack perspective, and see the admonitions of their elders as a weakness and impediment. Add to that the PC worldview, and the problems is exacerbated by whiteness.

    1. Measured
      Cognizant of how easy it is to F things up, of how precious a resource time is, of how much it sucks to have to do something all over again,… and how things add up over time, so it is worth the time to do it right…

      … not that I’m old, but I’m getting older! Ha ha… ha.

      1. “Measured

        At 79 this month I seem not yet ready to join the club–2,500 km un-cautiously up and down my roads and hills on bike and roller skis since the snow melted. No road rash so far; slide better though when there is snow.

        That was measured, not me.

      2. Also : responsibilities increase as time increases — older people tend to have greater responsibilities than younger.

    2. “Youth . . . sees every problem as an indictment of their elders . . . .”

      “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” – Mark Twain

    3. This is mostly true, however you’re still thinking of old = better. I’d probably say that young folk engage in riskier strategies for success. But that makes perfect sense, because they have lots more time to correct or recover from their mistakes and still succeed in life. Old people tend to be less risky in their decisions, because we have a lot more invested in the status quo. Our “success strategies” count on it being stable lot more than theirs do.

      So, not always worse or less informed. Just different.

      From JAC:

      …why the denigration of OLD white males? Are YOUNG white males better? Shakespeare had already produced some of his finest work by age 40…

      In this respect, I think the term “old” refers to “anyone prior to the generation doing the speaking.” So Shakespeare’s plays count as those of an old white man, no matter how young he was when he wrote them. Van Gogh may have killed himself at 37, but he still counts as an old white man, because he’s not young now.

      1. “… young folk engage in riskier strategies for success“

        By accident or deliberately perhaps. Risk is quantifiable. Risk is part of an equation for “success”. How is its use dependent on age? If anything, experience teaches how to use risk, instead of letting risk dominate the equation.

        1. By accident or deliberately perhaps.

          Or maybe it’s adaptive.

          How is its use dependent on age?

          As I said, if they make a mistake or change in strategy, they have more lifetime to recover from it and be successful. Thinking of a career change? It’s a lot easier to reach the top of your new career if you’re 30 vs. 50. So the expected risk vs. benefit is different if you’re 30 vs. 50. How about making a big risky investment with most of your savings? If you’re 60 and you lose, you’re screwed. If you’re 20 and you lose, you’re not. So again, the risk/benefit calculation is different depending on age.

          They also tend to be physically tougher, so taking any sort of risk that might involve physical harm (not just pleasure activities, but careers that may involve physical risks) again has a different risk vs. payoff calculation, because what might kill me probably won’t kill them, and even if there’s a serious injury, they again have a much easier and faster time recovering from it.

          IMO it makes sense for the young to engage in higher risk, higher payoff life decisions than us old fogies. So is it really surprising that their instincts seem to be to behave in a riskier fashion? Of course we can look at it from the other angle too – is it really surprising that older humans are more risk-averse?

          1. Sure, that’s as easy story to write as one which explores all the other scenarios that were left out, but what precisely does it say about how risk is used given the resources — of which time is only a single variable —available? I didn’t understand the equations so I refrain from arguing based on them, but I didn’t see how they were used to reach the conclusions.

        2. Risk is quantifiable to a degree, and the degree can vary a lot. Even the most rigorous risk assessment process is an estimate of probabilities. It usually involves many factors and many of those factors can have a significant subjective component to them.

          Risk assessment is by no means a precise science, not even in rocketry. When an older and wiser person decides the risk is too high and saves themselves from the possible negative consequences, that doesn’t in and of itself mean they were correct in their assessment.

          1. “Risk assessment is by no means a precise science, not even in rocketry.”

            That doesn’t mean we can say whatever we like and it will be true.

              1. ““Risk assessment is by no means a precise science”

                Medicine wasn’t a precise science either, at one time. I’m pretty sure there’s work being done on risk — with the intent of understanding it better —but I do not know of any because I never bothered to read about it. But I’m pretty sure the first stories I think of based on Elon Musks or Warren Buffetts are likely to be completely misleading.

  5. Throwing out old ideas such as freedom of speech for allowing speech that does not offend me should not have any age attached to the thinking. If it does it is probably due to the same herd mentality that has always affected the young. You know where popularity is more important than a principal. It is old habit that puts people into boxes, this one old men, another one young, this one liberal, this one conservative. It is wrong but we all do it everyday.

  6. When I was a young man, I seethed when ideas were dismissed simply because “we’ve done it this way forever and ain’t gonna change”. As a Southerner, I heard it a lot. As an old man I’ve worked hard at embracing new ideas and ways of doing things.

    1. “As a Southerner, I heard it a lot. As an old man I’ve worked hard at embracing new ideas and ways of doing things.”

      I grew up in the (Appalachian) South myself. Over the years I have occasionally read of a Southerner replying to a Northerner words-to-the-effect, “We don’t care how you did it up there.” I guess the lesson (to the extent one exists) is how (congenially or impertinently) one offers advice.

  7. Upon my fb page some time ago an unfinished
    sentence appeared. If I wished to finish it,
    then it would post. I did, and it did.

    ” IF I could G I V E my father an award,
    THEN it would be for … …

    [ me ] his signing on to All Things Feminist
    including gods’lessness … … inside,
    already, … … the 1940s and the 1950s.

    To me … … from my own father,
    Mr _____ ______ _____ _____, when he died
    30 March y1992: ‘ Nothing … … is going
    to break you. ‘”

    Daddy = Old White, Pacifist Guy.
    I was born upon his birthing day.
    His: 22 December y1919. Dead @ age 72.


  8. Wokeness is an ideology transmitted through the internet and has no doctrines or texts that could explain anything coherently. When you read supposed opinion leaders, you emerge non the wiser because what they write does not explain what goes around on the internet.

    As a result, wokeness documents the bigoted, racist, spoiled, entitled, disordered prejudices of the woke community, based loosely on progenitor ideologies like critical race theory, post-colonialism, and post-structuralism.

    I assume that “old white men” was originally about “de-colonialisation” of a curriculum and was mean literal: the long dead “old authors” of works deemed important in the humanities. But since then it‘s just good old “othering”. Woke people are mostly younger and postmodern multiculturalists who basically hate “western” democracies and what they see as stereotypical for it (which are older white men, as prime ministers, old masters, nobel laureates etcetera). I assume the term just drifted around a bit with usage, as everything else in that ideology.

    This ideology makes a lot more sense when you picture very online people who go by associations, buzzwords and slogans and who aren’t interested in anything more substantive. It’s mostly younger Americans, and as an evolution of the American “skeptic” (who wanted to be smarter than thou), also want to be seen morally superior than thou.

    Once again, the evidence does not support the notion that wokeness is compatible with Bernie Sanders’ style leftism. The woke loudly supported Clinton, and we know this for a fact because “Bernie Bro” (among others) got serious traffic as an insult and the term gives away its origin. Also, consider that World Socialist Web Site got semi-famous because they became the most outspoken critics of the woke 1619 project.

  9. I clicked on the link to the paper, and found a fair reporting about a contrary paper, which doesn’t seem “woke” to me. It also doesn’t seem like repression of dissenting voices to have a 2nd paper and to have it covered in the first one:


    Re: older generations… I think those of us who remember the 1960s naturally tend to undervalue the things that are being protested today (except George Floyd’s murder – which I think would have ignited protest in the 1960s if there was video). We can choose to be dismissive of currently expressed concerns, or we can choose to look at them as tidying up after the big things have been taken care of.

    I don’t agree that the First Amendment covers racist speech on a privately funded campus, though. They can say what they want somewhere else. It’s not like students won’t be able to find it if they want to. There’s a difference between hosting a debate and hosting a speaker. Perhaps that would be the answer to the outcry about censorship. I put racist speech in a university environment in the same space as tin-foil hate speech.

    I have given some thought to the appeal of Bernie Sanders amongst youngsters. It seems to me that he represents something similar to the campus movements of the 1960s — he calls for a revolution and he is against moderation and incrementalism. Our entire system of government is organized on the principles of moderation and incrementalism and against revolution, so in my opinion it’s an impossible position. Apparently more people agree with me than with him, because he’s lost in his bid to be the nominee twice, now.

    Biden is the opposite — having been on the “inside” (vs. being “independent” until he wants to run in the primaries), has made incremental changes, has changed his mind since the 1960s, and he works with the system of checks and balances instead of wanting to overthrow it. The young people don’t like that old, white man!

    1. I realize my thoughts seem random and stream-of-conscious thinking “out loud.” I’m on my lunch break. Sorry!

    2. The problem, of course, is that what is considered “racist speech” is tremendously variable, including “racist” speech saying that George Floyd’s killing might not have been motivated by racism. At Williams College, asking for evidence of systemic racism is considered racist. So, despite your call for speech codes at the University of Chicago, it isn’t going to work.

      And the conservative students started an alternative paper after they found themselves being attacked and demonized by liberal students.

      By the way, you haven’t yet retracted your claim that there was a racist incident at Smith college after I pointed out that Smith’s own investigation, as well as that of two liberal newspapers, found no evidence of racism (see here). ).

      Would you care to take the opportunity now to retract your claim, which was the only evidence you adduced for “systemic racism” at Smith?

    3. I don’t agree that the First Amendment covers racist speech on a privately funded campus, though.

      I agree with JAC I think on this; while it’s technically not illegal for a private university to ban some types of speech, it’s probably better for the students and for society in general if they don’t. We have public places, we have private places, but we also have a lot of private-but-mostly-act-like-public places. I think the latter includes things like private university campuses and facebook.
      If nothing else, we can consider the latter group to often be doing something wrong when they censor because it’s a form of false advertising. They promise free and open debate, you pay for free and open debate, but the product they actually deliver is censorship.

      I put racist speech in a university environment in the same space as tin-foil hate speech.

      So do I: allow them both, since part of the intellectual maturity process includes cutting your teeth on bad ideas. 🙂

      [Bernie] calls for a revolution and he is against moderation and incrementalism

      Personally I don’t think most of Bernie’s ideas are all that revolutionary. I would guess the difference between his healthcare ideas and Biden’s being selected is about 5 more liberals in the Senate. I also think you’ve bought the kool-aid a bit if you view him as an outsider. The man’s a career politician, caucusing with the Dems in the House or Senate for going on 30 years now.

      Bernie’s ideas are certainly to the left of Biden’s, but they’re both Washington insiders, particularly when compared to some of the other candidates who ran like Yang, Harris or Buttigeig. And Bernies’ call for nationalized health care isn’t “radical” considering he’s advocating the most common form of healthcare system in the 1st world.

  10. When I was in the 4th grade, I organized a revolutionary Party to fight against the despotic power of oppressive grown-ups over us nine-year-olds. We absolutely rejected their fascistic requirement that we sit still in class, and need permission to run out the door. We fought against the idea that old, white teachers could determine what we had to learn, such as spelling and multiplication tables; we demanded a curriculum based on our own lived experience, like bubble-gum, cap pistols and stick-ball in the street.

    We had to create our revolutionary posters with crayons, for lack of Party control over the school mimeograph machine. We planned to hold a protest demonstration across the street from school, but unfortunately the crossing guard wouldn’t let us cross the street. Our group of five 4th graders named itself the Political Bureau of our Central Committee, and I, based on my revolutionary experience, assumed the post of Secretary General. I might still hold that office, but other things intervened.

      1. One problem with some OWMs might be the old men who are dumb enough to send money to the grifters–in this case, AKA QAnon ‘leaders’, selling cheap t-shirts etc. But they’re now drifting away and will show up elsewhere, perhaps connecting up to one of the mass murderer’s $ appeals to help him fight the marvellously effective evidence-erasing vote stealers.

  11. This is a little off of the central issue here but still kind of answers the question about old white men today. Specifically white evangelicals all across this country. It helps me understand, hard as it is, to see how Trump got so many people to vote for him after the past four years. On this issue I will side with the young and secular every time. The only good news in this article is, they are getting older and dying out.


  12. “Self, Culture and Society”. Seeing that class still in the Core takes me back to 1975. Glad to see that U of C has stuck to its guns about a providing a real education.

  13. I would add that modern American culture is also intrinsically ageist.

    It is hyper-capitalistic, and the young are the ones who dispose their disposable income the most, so it indulges, flatters, and caters to them.

    And with the onset of wokism, youth is seen as a state of vulnerability, trauma, and innocence, whereas older people are viewed as corrupt exploiters.

    Additionally, during the past 40 years we have experienced political gridlock and increasing inequality. Many frustrated young people resent older people who are doing better than them—hence the tidal wave of “OK Boomer” anger. They think the old are standing in the way of revolutionizing society.

    In contrast with America, traditional societies place great value on elders and their wisdom. Perhaps they placed too much, but surely that’s better than American-style contempt.

  14. “And to those who dismiss white men because they’re old, I have two words in response: Bernie Sanders.” Alas, JC, many of the woke did dismiss Bernie precisely because he’s an old white man. And while we’re listing old white men from whom the woke could learn a thing or two, how about Karl Marx?

    1. “Alas, JC, many of the woke did dismiss Bernie precisely because he’s an old white man.”

      May one reasonably-enough presume that at least a few of the Woke purposefully plan to not get old?

  15. As an O(ish!)WM, if I point to my actions I’m “virtue signalling” and if I don’t I’m conforming to the stereotype, so either way I’m screwed so far as I can see…

  16. I started my BA in English at the State University of NY at Buffalo in 1978 … because of life, I finished in 2012. Between those years (I went back numerous times), the English department was degraded by this issue which is now called “wokeness”. I turned 60 this year, which means I can audit classes at UB for free & I was REALLY looking forward to this but COVID messed that up & I am not attending classes. But my son, who graduated last year from UB with a double major in English & Film, told me that I wouldn’t like it there anymore … he said that that I would be angry all the time with the woke kids & I would either be arguing or having to STFU just to get along. We’ll see what the future brings. I do miss having an academic community. Even one with which I don’t quite agree or understand.

  17. Dissent and protest should be affirmatively welcomed, not merely tolerated

    What’s the point of protesting if the authorities welcome it? What’s wrong with students these days? It seems like they’ve read about protest in the 60’s and want to emulate it but please don’t be mean to them.

    Also, I did dismiss Bernie during the primaries because of his age. I also dismissed Biden and I thought Warren was pushing it, purely on age terms.

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