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Lying About Age: The Legal Efforts of Emile Ratelband

Oscar Wilde famously warned that one should never trust a woman who revealed her true age; anyone so inclined to do so was bound to tell you anything.  He also, in his characteristic stab at modern manners, suggested that no woman should be quite on the money about her age for another reason: “It looks so calculating.”

Emile Ratelband, from what reports suggest, is not a woman, but a distinctly insecure man on a mission of pure calculation: to secure a different age in the public domain.  While biologically impossible, despite claiming that his ageing has stopped, the Dutchman is testing the legal waters to see if he might slash off some 20 years off his birthdate, making him a more youthful 49.  The world might be slowly going to hell in a hand basket, but the monumental nature of the trivial shall have its day in court.

Ratelband’s view is that of any person feeling an identity pull crying out for legal recognition.  He is inspired by other role models – not merely the insufferable Tony Robbins of US, life coach optimism, but transgendered people, who supply him a shameless ground of comparison.  Despite being a motivational speaker himself, his optimism does not extend to the impediments of age.  “We live in a time when you can change your name and change your gender.  Why can’t I decide my own age?”

Open slather has been declared in the identity market, and to that end, he has gone so far as to subject himself to a psychiatric evaluation as to whether he was a “victim of the Peter Pan syndrome”. Another evaluation might be in order after Ratelband’s address to the court, in which he claimed that President Donald Trump was “the first person who is honest” in showing his feelings on Twitter.  “He’s a new kind of person.”

His fruit salad reasons are, like others obsessed with “the real me”, selfish, having “to do with my feeling, with respect about who I think… I am, my identity.”  Reducing his age by two decades would open doors shut to the aged and ageing.  “If I’m 49, then I can buy a new house, drive a different car.  I can take up more work.” (These are things Ratelband could probably do anyway, given his frame of mind, but lets his leave his mind to its own, curiously absorbed devices.)

There is the issue of dating, that minefield of human interaction where initial impressions, toxic, deodorised or otherwise, tend to be everything.  “When I’m on Tinder and it says I’m 69, I don’t get an answer.  When I’m 49, with the face I have, I will be in a luxurious position.”

Why Ratelband does not take a leaf out of the book of mendacity that has characterised human dating since bipedalism became vogue is hard to fathom.  Again, lie about your age; many people do so with calculation and determination. Appearance, of which he cares much about, will carry you over.  But the adventurous, if seemingly vexatious Dutchman does have a point: every liar should sport a phenomenal memory, which is a damn bother if you don’t have one. “If you lie,” he told the Washington Post, “you have to remember everything you say.”

The judges of the Arnhem District Court found little to merit this effort at jigging time, and the law.  “Mr Ratelband,” claimed the court bench with cool reserve, despite initially showing, according to the petitioner, a giggly, girly disposition, “is at liberty to feel 20 years younger than his real age and to act accordingly.”  Altering any legal documents pertaining to age, however, would lead to “undesirable legal and societal implications”.

Some of these implications centre on the issue of assigning duties and rights by the mere fact of having an age – the issue of voting, for instance, or the obligation to attend school.  (Neither apply to the applicant in this case, but courts are always distracted by the issue of floodgates and their irrepressible breach.)  “If Mr Ratelband’s request was allowed, those age requirements would become meaningless.”

The judges were also concerned about the sheer number of documents that would, quite literally, cease to have any relevance.  To amend the date of birth “would cause 20 years of records to vanish from the register of births, deaths, marriages and registered partnerships.” An administrator’s nightmare.

The field of discrimination could have supplied Ratelband his ammunition.  The judges, however, needed more convincing.  While the court bench was not immune to the possibility that discrimination might, in some cases, be open, Ratelband had failed to show that he had suffered it, suggesting that “other alternatives” were available “rather than amending a person’s date of birth.”

Ratelband, for his part, is undeterred.  His irritating positivity is both balm and encouragement. “The rejection of [the] court is great… because they give all kinds of angles where we can connect when we go on appeal.”

Ratelband sounds vain, insufferable, insecure and keen to be heard.  He is entitled to, but this is a selfish time that denies the immutable nature of death (delayed as it is) and presumes that those who age will do so noisily into the social media night.  As Ratelband is unlikely to avail himself of time dilation, a delightful consequence of Einstein’s theory of relativity, he will have to seek his change via legal processes.  That might entail moving to a different jurisdiction, and mindset, altogether.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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