“A loss of attractiveness”

an interview with Martha Nussbaum

Finally! (Issue I/2020)

The author Martha Nussbaum. Photo: Private -

Ms Nussbaum, how are you on this chilly morning in Chicago?

I find it invigorating. I just did a long run – I usually do one long run during the week and shorter runs the other days – on the treadmill because my lowest temperature for going outside is about minus 2 degrees and it’s minus 8 today. I have a gym-quality treadmill in my home so I just get out of bed, have my coffee and get going. 

You look very fit.

Thank you.

There are certain questions that we are conditioned not to ask people, unless we know them very well: who you will vote for, how much money you make, do you believe in God, how old are you? Why is this question taboo, when age is just a biological fact?

It isn’t anymore because it’s easy with the click of a mouse to find somebody’s age. But I think it used to be something you would hide because there were so many denigrating stereotypes associated with age and they’re still there: a loss of capacity, a loss of attractiveness. They are reinforced by social practices that we ought to be changing like compulsory retirement. In countries with compulsory retirement, you hear all kinds of questions: “oh, you’re still teaching?” - it’s like “you’re still alive?!”. The social then becomes personal. If people believe they shouldn’t be working because no one wants them there, then they lose self-esteem and competence. The stress of being treated badly and talked down to by others then impacts health. The medical profession plays a part in this. If you go to a doctor with a treatable disease at 40, they’ll try to find out what disease you have; if you’re 70, they’ll just say, “oh, that’s normal ageing.” A lot of things that could be treated are imputed to normal ageing. It’s only now that the baby boomer generation is in their 70s that we’re starting to get recognition of treatable health problems that we should have had recognition for all along.

What about the language we use when talking about age. I had, of course, checked Wikipedia and know that you are 72, and I am 47. That puts 25 years between us. Conventionally I would be considered “middle aged” (although I don’t like that term because it presumes to know how long I will live)...

Yes, it’s meaningless..

Even Hollywood is beginning to recognise ageing people and show them in a light that’s generous, that gives them agency

Is there a label you use to describe your age-group or do you think these labels are not helpful?

I don’t think they’re very helpful. Most of the people I hang out with socially are somewhat younger than me and I don’t feel “oh there’s a person that’s younger than me,” I just feel that these are my friends. I can talk about the Baby Boomer generation – in a political sense, we are an important force. I’m very glad to see in this political campaign that everyone is older. In the last election, you had two people competing who were both over 70 and now in the Democratic primary, you have Sanders who is 78 and Elizabeth Warren who is 70 and obviously Trump, who is in his 70s. I think it’s good that we see more and more active people who are up in age taking lead roles in society. Even Hollywood is beginning to recognise ageing people and show them in a light that’s generous, that gives them agency. Women especially. Older men usually managed to get parts in movies but if older women managed to get parts, it was “the nice grandmother” - they’re not portrayed as dynamic, not sources of new ideas and certainly not sexy. But now with Helen Mirren, Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep, we have a generation of actors who are demanding roles that are not insulting. And there are people in public life, not just in the US, who are older so I think there’s progress. As we see people who are active, healthy and dynamic in different generations, we lose the sense that there’s any singular meaning to the 70s.

For a while in life, we talk about “getting older”, but at a certain point, we start talking about “ageing.” What defines that tipping point – is it biology or culture or both?

I guess I avoid the word ageing because it suggests slipping into this denigrated category of the “aged.” The more you think about it as slipping off the edge of usefulness, that’s not good. There are some people who look forward to retirement as a time they can do something different and that is understandable, particularly if their work has been monotonous or boring and unfortunately, that goes for most people. At one point, both the rabbi and the cantor in my congregation were second career women who had taken early retirement – one from business, the other from a travel agency – and they had gone back to school, and were finding meaning in a new career, which I think is great.… I went to my 50th high school reunion a while back and found that some people I had not found very interesting in high school had found a very meaningful life in volunteer work, post retirement. That was very interesting to me. I don’t have time for volunteer work, I’m just too busy, but there are lots of different ways to find meaning.

You’re exactly the same age as my mother. One thing that irritates her about her peers is the amount of conversation given over to what she calls “the organ recital”. Is this something your find in your age group and do you participate?

Ha! Yes, Saul, my co-author, is very allergic to that kind of talking and he’s adopted a rule of never describing medical symptoms and I think it’s a good rule to follow. I’m almost never ill. I’ve only been hospitalised to give birth and when I was 11, I had this silly plastic surgery because my ear stuck out too much my father thought that it would stick through my hair and be an obstacle to dating. For me, it’s just the narcissism of small ailments. And because my hobby is singing, I’m always complaining. This law school has terribly dry air. You see I have these two machines to try to make the air better (a humidifier and an air purifier).

You call ageism the final frontier in discrimination. When and how did you first become aware of its existence? 

I’m not sure it’s the final frontier, because you never know what our prejudices are. I didn’t notice it at all when I was younger, partly because I was lucky to have a grandmother who was very healthy and vital and lived to 104. I think I first noticed it when compulsory retirement was being imposed on some of my teachers at graduate school. I noticed that it had nothing to do with competence or merit, it was just a form of invidious discrimination against a field that had nothing to do with age. So it raised the question: why would there be mandatory retirement at all? So I was delighted when it began to be attacked. I was lucky that when I came along, it was being eliminated.

I would love to have an infinite number of careers – psychoanalyst, singer. I just never get bored

From time immemorial, humans in every culture and tradition have been trying to find the key to eternal youth and to escape their own mortality. Now it’s big business and some researchers are suggesting that, in the not so distant future, we may be living healthful lives well beyond 100. David Sinclair, a molecular geneticist at the Harvard Medical School, recently published a book titled “Lifespan: Why We Age – And Why We Don’t Have To.” What do you make of the human quest to extend life?

Personally, I’m all for that. I had a teacher named Bernard Williams, a great philosopher, who wrote an article about why it would be good to die before too long, before we burn through all the projects that gave our life meaning. I think that might be true for some people but boy, it sure doesn’t seem true of me. I would love to have an infinite number of careers – psychoanalyst, singer. I just never get bored. For me it would be lovely. But the real problem is distribution. Either everyone gets it, in which case the question is how to limit population size or only some people get it, and then there’s a horrible sense of inequity. Lucretius, the Roman philosopher of the first century BC, was onto this. He had various arguments about why we shouldn’t long for immortality. The earth can’t have so many people so we have to figure out where the material for new life comes from. Lucretius thought that there were an infinite number of worlds out there in space, so if we did find other worlds, we could shoot off some people and they could have a good life out there. Maybe we should do that.

Interview by Naomi Buck



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