Entitlement. A word bandied about often by many citizens of the United States. I wanted to explore it because in a recent conversation, it was used akin to arrogance and I wasn’t sure that was correct. The word “entitlement” doesn’t appear in the English language until 1782 and I was unable to find its original source. However, in a very interesting article on Entitlement, (in a blog called Language Log), the author is investigating the question of when the term went from being a positive term to being a negative term. The article in question is here. Specifically, we North Americans now tend to use the term in a negative way: ” a sense of entitlement” is used to discuss someone who is feeling privileged, or feeling they need special privileges when they are not due them. Additionally, the government uses it in a negative way to indicate the same thing; “entitlement programs” are seen as those programs which feed the parasites in society and are not empowering. Some elements of society tend to refer to them as “handouts.” Others see “entitlements” as a duty to care for fellow human beings.
These references and discussions leads one to see a culture that seems to be pushing the idea of activity and work as the only valid “value” in society. As a nation, we see our work as a symbol of uprightness, honesty, and strength. We see the homeless, poor, and unemployed as having done something wrong or lazy or both. If your parents instilled that value of working hard for your goals, no matter what they are, the thoughts have crossed your mind at some point in your life that someone must have done something wrong to be laid off, fired, homeless, poor, or generally in a poor state of affairs. Guaranteed. The only way one cannot feel this way is if one has been dragged through the proverbial “ringer” themselves and had to be that person who is poor, homeless, oppressed, or otherwise fallen into “bad times.”
Do we take our judgement about “entitlement” to extremes? I ask myself that often. I go to yearly conferences where dozens of people arrive to a site and live in a cooperative atmosphere for days at a time. Living in dormitory settings and eating meals family/buffet style, it’s expected that everyone participates in the setup, cleanup, and maintenance of the site. No one is exempt from this expectation except the infirm or very senior or aged attendees. In general, this seems to work very well. People are cooperative, happy to help, and understand not only the value of “many hands make light work” but also Industry or work are good for us overall. People feel better when they are participating and joining in the creation of a harmonious and giving space. When twenty people clean up, it means more time spent for everyone in other activities. The group is happy and the environment is uplifting.
You all know what I’m going to say here. There is no perfection and no paradise. There are always one or two people who struggle with these cooperative work or shared space concepts. They place all their items in the showers of the bathroom that is shared with ten people. They lock the bathroom door, restricting access for those same ten people who would also need the toilets or showers which are shared. They rarely do the dishes, and almost never look around for what work might need to be done. They don’t even ask if they can help – they just disappear for their “personal” time. After all, they’re on vacation, aren’t they? They expect the “locals” to help the with rides, directions, or general questions | assistance at a moment’s notice and with little regard for what that person might actually be doing at that moment. They see other people’s time as their own, not something for which to be grateful. In short, they do not think about the other person before making their requests. They do not see the other person as valuable as they are. They may be the gentlest soul in the world, used to working hard at home; however, at these conferences, there’s a “sense of entitlement” that seems to permeate their actions.
The proper thing to do is to point this out to them and help them understand how their behavior impacts others. As a member of the community during this time, it’s my job to do that. I believe it’s all our jobs to do that. I fail. Others fail. The person continues to see their behavior as acceptable and others continue to see their behavior as intrusive and rude. This breeds resentment, gossip, and ill will. I’ve felt that resentment grow, and ask myself silently, “Don’t they see what they are doing? They are wrecking this for everyone!” That might be a little dramatic but the resentment does grow. I make assumptions that they are lazy, acting entitled, or just clueless. When it finally erupts, it comes off as condescending, belittling, and not very respectful of the other person. Conversely, it does no good to “ignore it.” I do not want to be that person who says “people are people” and they “will always be that way.” That’s condescending in another way; by not offering the person the person the information necessary to learn and grow, you’re saying they are not capable, intelligent human beings. You are demeaning them by dismissing the behavior. In fact, you are enabling the entitlement.
Obviously, as I stated above, the right thing to do is to point out the behavior and talk about its impact. My general way of doing this is pointing out the behavior, listening to them and their responses, showing how it impacts others, and providing a few possible ways to approach the issue. I try to approach it as a discussion rather than an admonishment – at least the first time. Maybe even the second time. Yet, I always have that fear of bringing something up to someone and having them be upset; indeed, this is the reason most of us don’t do it in the first place. We think we are one of three things: we are not responsible, we’re acting beyond our authority, or we’re going to upset people.
At least, that’s what I tell myself. It’s bravado and I stumble. But I have to just do it. Practice makes perfect.
The first steps are always the hardest. For me, approaching entitlement as a discussion rather than corrective behavior seems to be the right answer. I have to frame the words that come out of my mouth in such a way to help correct the situation, not inflame passions. I know that everyone doesn’t work that way; my hope is to have understanding about impact rather than to just blindly correct a behavior. If someone is chastised, they tend to only associate the behavior with that specific environment. If a discussion ensues, they see their actions in the broader context – their lives – and thus may make the leap of approaching all activities with a mindset that steers away from entitlement.
What I think is true for this conference might also be true for the wider society and our day to day lives. While we’re not living in dormitories and sharing food at every meal, I think the path of discussion rather than accusations feels more correct, more productive. Perhaps more human. I personally tend to get mad when someone expects me to jump at their call without even a “hello” or they infringe on shared space with their demands and wants. If I can take a breath and think for a moment before engaging, I might be able to leverage that “pivotal” moment and create something positive. It doesn’t always work – traffic is a great example – but I hope that I’m making progress. Thinking before speaking is always a challenge but one worth jumping into.
Not everyone will “get it.” Some of those I call out will be embarrassed enough by their actions to be mad with me for pointing it out. Some will cry and think I’m calling them awful people. Some will ignore the guidance, or hate me for being arrogant enough to think I’m better than them, or just plain shrug their shoulders and walk way. It shouldn’t stop any of us from trying to address these things that would hold us all back from being better people and better citizens. The community we strive to improve is the one with which we are actively involved; that is our friends, neighbors, and co-workers.
As Freemasons, our behavior away from our Lodge is equally as important as our time within the Lodge. We’re taught how to behave with one another, including the ability to address concerns with a fellow Brother directly and with virtue. Shouldn’t we afford the rest of our community the benefit of our lessons learned? That is part of helping humanity improve, I think. It doesn’t make it easy when the rest of the world doesn’t play by the same rules. It also doesn’t exempt us from facing the challenges and the hard work ahead. If we dislike entitlement so much, and we resent the people who fall into that mode of being, what are we doing to combat it? What are we doing to improve it, whether it is a head-to-head conversation or immersion in supporting an organization like Habitat for Humanity or mentoring for job-training programs? It behooves us to be the examples of working hard to show the meaning of real service, gratitude, and entitlement. How can we help people help themselves, instead of being victims? How does being a victim benefit anyone, personally or societally?
Maybe we can take back the word “entitlement” to mean what it initially or originally meant: “the amount to which a person has a right; the fact of having a right to something.” What is a “right,” and to what do we each have a “right?” What are your thoughts on entitlements and rights? Is a study of “the human right” in order? Or Rights in general? What do you think?
As always, I am grateful for your views and opinions.