A group of smirking teenagers stand in front of an old man. The teens wear red Make America Great hats, which have expanded in their original role beyond merely describing Trump republican nomination supporters. The old man in front of them, however, is a Native American elder and Vietnam War veteran. This meeting, thanks to the Internet’s attention span, over the weekend drew global condemnation for the callous and disrespectful confrontation, the failure of misguided youth to respect the wisdom of their elders.

Like everything else, this is not the entire story. It was the elder, a Nathan Phillips, who approached the teenagers – not the other way around – apparently in an effort to reduce tension between them and some nearby protestors. The teen principally seen in the video released a statement that he did not interact with the protestor. The hats, as previously described, mean many things to many people – not necessarily what the teenagers were intending, apart from perhaps rebellious provocation, and even that is suspect. Lastly, of course, there is no guarantee that wisdom has anything to do with being elderly.

The good thing is, there’s an app for that. Or rather, a scale. In January this year, the Journal of Psychiatric Research published the San Diego Wisdom Scale, a system of specifically quantifying a person’s wisdom. Assessing intelligence is a well known concept, with the “IQ” test being that which people are most familiar with – and a relatively simple process at that, in assessing the ability of people to incorporate and manage new information. Wisdom, however, has been seen as a more esoteric and unusual concept.
The authors of the scale took the sensible – and rather wise – approach of assessing wisdom not in terms of its components, but its effects – in leading to individuals developing particular personality traits. Incorporating neurobiology, philosophy, and even theological constructs, the researchers identified wisdom as a set of behaviours and traits that could now be measured. What then became interesting was when the scale was deployed in a group of individuals of varying age. Two major features were found – loneliness was extremely common in old age and even middle age, although this was significantly reduced when wisdom was present. The second issue was more subtle – it identified that wisdom had a negative correlation with age.
Understanding what wisdom means is a problematic issue, as it brings into question fundamental questions about our society and what we value – experience, resilience, and social cohesiveness. These are thought to be related to age, but it appears it may not be an automatic issue. It is possible for a person to grow and still be in error – as, increasingly, critics are identifying Mr Phillips of. However one must not assume wisdom is assumed always to lead to accurate decisions – as Mr Phillips’ motivations for behaviour, as indeed the red-hatted teens, suggest.

One of the truly encouraging issues with the scale is that it suggests that wisdom can indeed be taught, by working towards particular behaviours that lead to being a better person. The ability to give good advice, the ability to control one’s own emotions, a capacity for empathy, tolerance for divergent values, and decisiveness – these were among the features that the wisdom scale researchers identified as salient issues. Perhaps this can encourage us not to reduce our reactions to viral clips to automatic denunciations of fundamental social mores. On a more practical level, it suggests that everyone in the clip had something to learn from each other.

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