why is "entitled" a dirty word? some thoughts on what we are all entitled to.

When did "entitled" become a dirty word? Why do we hear "entitled" being used as catch-all slur, a derogatory description to be thrown at progressive people working for change? And why should we permit this word to retain such a heavily negative connotation?

Here are some people I have seen called entitled in this negative sense by bloggers and commenters. Brigette DePape. Occupy protesters. Refugee claimants. Quebec student protesters. People opposed to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline. Voters who believe they were defrauded by the Conservative Party of Canada.

Here is a synonym for entitled: deserve.

Here is another synonym for entitlements: rights.

Some of our entitlements are specified in national documents, such as the US Constitution or the more comprehensive and inclusive Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom.

Other entitlements are specified in international documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These are rights that most people in the world lack. Nevertheless, there is widespread agreement that these rights - these entitlements - should exist for all human beings, regardless of where they were born, what they look like, and their individual beliefs.

Other entitlements are those of custom, part of the aspirations and traditions of the so-called developed word, rights and privileges which many in our society already enjoy, and that many of us believe should be available to all.

Here are some of the things all human beings are entitled to.

Democracy. Human beings are entitled to self-governance. In countries claiming to be democracies, citizens are entitled to vote without encountering undue obstructions or restrictions. They are entitled to the assurance that their vote will be counted fairly and meaningfully, and that no system exists that negates the concept of "one person, one vote".

Dissent. Human beings are entitled to voice their grievances against governments without fear of harassment, intimidation, imprisonment, or abuse. Humans are entitled to access mechanisms by which we can meaningfully affect government policies and practices.

Clean air and water. Human beings are entitled to breathe air and drink water that is not toxic at no substantial cost and without generating private profit for others.

Healthcare. Period.

Affordable housing. Same.

Bodily integrity. Human beings are entitled to be free from torture, forced or coerced military service, forced or coerced reproduction or sterilization, state-sponsored death, and the fear of any of these. Human beings are entitled to express their sexuality in any way they choose with any other consenting adults.

Education. As formal education is often a requirement of meaningful participation in society, all people in society are entitled to participate in that education, without being unreasonably burdened by debt for years or decades to come. This right has been established by custom and tradition by previous generations, many members of whom now deny the right to younger generations.

A means of support. We are entitled to jobs by which we can support ourselves and our families, without fear of hunger, homelessness, or poverty. If we are unable to work or if no such work exists, we are entitled to an alternate means of support.

Expression. Human beings are entitled to express their thoughts through discussion, debate, writing, music, art, and any available media without fear of intimidation, harassment, imprisonment, or other reprisals.

Spiritual beliefs and cultural traditions, and the expression of those. This includes the right to wear what we choose.

Protesters who are engaged in struggles to retain these human rights, or to make meaningful rights that exist only in theory, are not entitled in some new negative use of the word. They are entitled because they are human beings and they have rights - rights that their detractors should also enjoy and exercise.

Fighting these struggles does not make us whiners, or spoiled, or lazy, or selfish. Indeed, if detractors and critics would put aside their preconceived notions and join us, however experimentally, even for one day, I believe they'd find it's exactly the opposite.


johngoldfine said...

"...drink water that is not toxic at no substantial cost....

Your faithful readers will understand your special concern here.

laura k said...

Your faithful readers will understand your special concern here.

Ah! That's great. I was thinking of victims of water privatization around the globe, but our Peel bill works, too. :)

johngoldfine said...

Impressive list! Are those items just off the top of your head?

"Cultural traditions," of course, butts up against some of the other entitlements like bodily integrity. I think the individual right will always trump the collective right--that is, for example, circumcision, genital mutilation, ritual scarification, and so on can't be visited on children, whatever their culture's traditions or norms might demand.

laura k said...

Yes, the list is just off the top of my head. It's not meant to be exhaustive.

Bodily integrity always always always comes first. It is perhaps the most basic human right, and no cultural tradition or government has the right to trump it.

But the freedom to practice one's spiritual beliefs and cultural traditions without harming anyone else, that's a gimme, too.

James Redekop said...

I'm convinced that a good part of it has to do with Calvinism, which had a huge influence on the culture of many of the colonies, as well as the forms of Protestantism which grew out of it. Calvinism's doctrine of TULIP covers a lot of the reasons: T stands for "Total Depravity" -- humans are completely depraved and don't deserve anything. You can only be saved by God's "Irresistable Grace" (the I).

Later forms of fundamentalism also incorporated the idea that that grace is manifest in your wealth and success on Earth. If you're rich, it's because you are a Good Person and God thinks you deserve to be rich. If you're poor, it's because you are not a Good Persron, and God thinks you deserve to be poor -- and so anyone doing anything to help you means they are going against God's will.

More recently, there's the Prosperity Gospel -- and Trickle Down Economics, which is essentially a secular version of the same thing. Give money to your betters, and you will be rewarded. But giving your money to "those people", well, that won't do you any good.

One of the ironic paradoxes of Calvinism in the US is that TULIP is really antithetical to the idea of the "self-made man" and the "rags to riches story". The doctrines of "Unconditional Election" and "Irresistible Grace" means that God has already either chosen or rejected you. You are saved or you are damned, and nothing you do can change that. Which might be one of the reasons why the US is one of the least socially mobile countries in the developed world...

(Disclaimer: I am not a specialist in Calvinist theology, and am going by second-hand readings on TULIP &c)

deang said...

Very well said. And so important.

laura k said...

Thanks deang. :)

James, interesting stuff.

I'm not sure Prosperity Gospel and Trickle Down (also known as Voodoo Economics, with apologies to practitioners of Voodun) fit in with the Calvinist scheme. Both are scams to keep the rich richer and the rest of us down.

In US culture, the myth of the self-made man is extremely powerful, usually tied to what people call the "Protestant work ethic" - a ridiculous concept, considering how hard all the Catholic, Jewish, Baptist (and etc.) people worked to build the country while pulling themselves up and out of poverty.

laura k said...

* Yes, Baptist is a form of Protestantism, but "the Protestant work ethic" refers only to WASPs, not African-Americans.

James Redekop said...

I didn't mean to imply that the Prosperity Gospel actually followed from Calvinism, but the two have definitely interbred in recent history. A lot of modern fundamentalist churches have very incoherent doctrines, drawn from whatever the preacher thinks will generate the most income.

laura k said...

A lot of modern fundamentalist churches have very incoherent doctrines, drawn from whatever the preacher thinks will generate the most income.


M@ said...

You guys were only recently "in country" when this came up, but "entitlement" is a special dog-whistle for Canadian conservatives.

David Dingwall was a former cabinet minister who later became head of the Royal Canadian Mint, and then was pushed out, and then received almost $500k in severance from an independent arbitrator who determined that he had been pushed out of the job (so he got a little less than two years' salary at $500k).

This was in the middle of the AdScam witchhunt, so Dingwall went before a parliamentary committee for questioning about both his severance and what seemed to be a lot of money spent on Mint executives. Dingwall stupidly said "I'm entitled to my entitlements" and in Canadian politics, that's been a way to accuse Liberals of digging in too enthusiastically at the public trough.

Of course, conservatives latched onto the phrase with gusto, especially with the kind of people who bray on newspaper comment sections and so on. Strangely, the phrase isn't used as much now that they're in power.

But I'm pretty sure that "entitled" has a special frisson in Canadian politics. I definitely hear echoes of it in people criticizing anyone who isn't in abject poverty suggesting that people shouldn't be in abject poverty.

laura k said...

Dingwall stupidly said "I'm entitled to my entitlements"

I remember that vividly! When I wrote this post, I Googled the phrase to his name. I didn't end up including it, but I definitely made the connection.

It's only in the past year or so that I've heard the word used widely to slag just about any protestor, and from US sources as well.

Was "entitlement" already a buzzword at that time, or did that incident create it?

M@ said...

I'm not sure whether that's where the word gained the political currency it now has, but it might well be. If not, then it certainly got a huge boost from the Dingwall affair.

laura k said...

* to get his name

laura k said...

This is in my notebook from the final session of Marxism 2012. After the panel discussion, a young activist who I really like (originally from the US) said:

We keep hearing that we're "entitled"! Just who is entitled? Their class has it all, always has had it all, and now they're taking still more, and THEY call US entitled? They got their affordable educations and they got their good jobs and we try to get exactly what they got and THEY call US entitled?!

M@ said...

Yes, that's it exactly. You're drinking a latte! From Starbucks! What more could you want, you parasite? Go make your wealth like I did when I inherited it!

Oh, note that if someone is actually impoverished, and you can't call them entitled, you just have to tell them to get a job.

laura k said...

Oh, note that if someone is actually impoverished, and you can't call them entitled, you just have to tell them to get a job.

And in fact most people who are agitating are not trying to get wealth, as in excess. We're trying to get the opportunity to support ourselves and our families with ONE job per person, the way our parents or grandparents did - to enjoy leisure time - to just live a decent life, without poverty or the fear of poverty hanging over our heads. Spoiled, entitled brats that we are.

impudent strumpet said...

I've been thinking about the phrase "He thinks the world owes him a living" lately. Our whole society is structured on the fact that you need to be able to earn a living, but this phrase complaining that someone wants to be able to earn a living is common enough that it's become cliche.

laura k said...

That totally nails it. ^^^

I started to write an agreement, but it was basically restating what Imp Strump said.

Charles Ayres said...

I wondered about this word and Googled searched "when did entitled become used so often" I often read it on celebrity gossip sites - usually a female reader is insulting a female celebrity saying she acts "entitled." I think in the '80s we used the word "arrogant" more often, but in the last 5 years became a buzzword.