I’ve been puzzling over the difference between entitlement and privilege. I’ll look up definitions shortly, but first I’ll just do a little freestyle noodling around. Because I can. I’m entitled to.
I’ve been assuming, when I thought anything about it, that entitlement originally meant the benefits of being, literally, titled. Titles signifying levels of nobility, in the sense of class, not character, carry with them certain specific entitlements, or at least they used to. Of course “Droit du Seigneur” (or, alternately, “the right of first night") springs first to mind, especially dirty minds like mine; the right of the feudal Lord to have first dibs on the brides of his underlings. While this particular entitlement may be mythical—apparently there are no firm records of it actually being done, just references to a past when it used to be done but was outlawed by one king or another. Pretty much a case of nostalgia for the good old bad old days.
Then there’s privilege. We’re often told these days to check our privilege. I understand that what’s meant is that we should admit that our privilege gives us un unfair advantage, and not judge others who don’t have the privilege that goes with being white, heterosexual (if in fact that’s how one identifies), male (not my problem), and having grown up in moderately comfortable circumstances, with a good education (guilty.) People with an inflated sense of entitlement tend to be that way because the privilege they may not even admit to allows them to feel worthy of the best things in life.
Moving on to actual definitions of the terms, ones source defines entitlement as:
:the condition of having a right to have, do, or get something
: the feeling or belief that you deserve to be given something (such as special privileges)
: a type of financial help provided by the government for members of a particular group.
Another source says:
1. The act or process of entitling.
2. The state of being entitled.
3. A government program that guarantees and provides benefits to a particular group: “like the Medicaid entitlement for the poor".
Hmm. I’m familiar with the governmental context for entitlement, almost always used in a negative sense, and almost always referring to government programs that benefit a particular group that is not one’s own particular group, rather like “special interests” always referring to somebody else’s interests, not the perfectly acceptable and patently justifiable interests of one’s own.
Another source has a definition of “privilege” that comes close to “entitlement”:
Privilege is a special right or advantage available only to a particular person or group of people. The term is commonly used in the context of social inequality, particularly in regard to age, disability, ethnic or racial category, gender, sexual orientation, religion and/or social class.
Further Googling turns up examples of entitlements that most would not see as negative, such as the right of a someone charged with a crime to confer with a lawyer and to be considered innocent until proven guilty (although that last part seems to be largely ignored), or the right to a publicly provided education through high school (although not necessarily as good an education as someone in a wealthier community might have.) These, along with Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security are rights codified in law, which seems to be the major difference between entitlements and privileges. It turns out that entitlement and titles of nobility are only connected in that both are written down in law, not derived from each other as I thought.
Still, “entitlement” tends to evoke a knee-jerk negative reaction, whether in a political context or a social one. Having a sense of entitlement is frowned on in others, but unrecognized in oneself. Privilege is much the same. Perspective is everything. It’s even been reported (which doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true) that some people who rail against government in general and entitlements in particular will say, in almost the same breath, “the government better keep it’s hands off my Social Security!” What’s really disturbing is that those people may be voting for the very politicians that are hell bent on getting rid of Social Security.
What’s also disturbing is the sneaking suspicion that my feeling of superiority over those people is a sign of my unexamined privilege. But at least it’s not entitlement, right?