Monday, August 22, 2016

Who, Me, Entitled?

Sacchi Green

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?


  1. Entitlements come in many forms. It has always puzzled me that the concept has such negative connotations. After all, if this is truly the greatest country in the world, one would expect there to be advantages that come with citizenship.

    1. Ah, but government entitlements are funded by the taxpayers, and some taxpayers resent paying for anything that doesn't directly benefit themselves. For that matter, they resent funding even things that do directly affect them, though they won't admit it, like education. An educated population benefits the whole nation, but plenty of people vote against expenditures for education because they don't currently have school-age kids. (Even worse are those who see education as a negative rather than a positive, since it might lead to kids learning things the parents don't believe in. Especially learning critical thinking.)

  2. Interesting analysis of some related issues, Sacchi, especially considering that both "privilege" and "entitlement" are often used to refer to someone else's supposed arrogance. This raises the question of whether there is an exact opposite of "entitlement" -- disentitlement? A sense of having no rights at all? This doesn't seem like a good thing either, possibly worse than a sense of entitlement. People whose rights are regularly denied or abused need a sense of entitlement to form social justice movements that tend to move the whole zeitgeist forward. So maybe the only thing wrong with either privilege or a sense of entitlement is that not everyone has them.

    1. A remarkable but likely take, Jean. The ability to expect better.

    2. The closest I can come to an opposite to entitled would be disadvantaged. Disenfranchised comes to mind, too, but that just applies to voting, I think, although I may be wrong.

  3. I'm reminded of research which shows that high status people are more likely to attribute their prosperity to competence or other personal attributes. Successful individuals lower on the social ladder are more likely to recognize the effects of luck or chance as contributors to their success. In a sense, the high status people believe they're entitled to their success because they are "better" in some fundamental way.

    Of course the classic "switched at birth" tale clearly demonstrates the fallacy of this belief.

  4. "the governmental context for entitlement, almost always used in a negative sense"

    I think it's really interesting that you bring this up because I can come up with a lot of examples in stories where certain government entitlements are presented as superpowers. For example, Paul in the Bible, who invokes his Roman citizenship to get the type of trial he's entitled to.

    I've been thinking about the word and my sense is that the super negative connotation about the word "entitlement" is more recent. There has been a double-edged quality to it for a while ("you entitled ass" isn't a new insult), but I think people wouldn't have hesitated twenty years ago to say something like, "as a citizen, I'm entitled to a fair trial."

  5. I read a comment recently that said that the only people to complain about programs designed to encourage equality are those who won't be the privileged few anymore, since they will have to share equally, what they used to grab for themselves. Probably very true. Hence the extreme anger of poor white men, who at least used to be able to feel entitled to jobs/money/pussy because they were white. Now they're expected to share in the table scraps of the wealthy, like everyone else, and they're not happy. My heart breaks for them.

    Your comments about "first night" reminded me of that terrible old movie, "The Vikings," with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. Kirk is the one who claims the privilege, because he's smitten with Tony Curtis' beloved. She gets passed along like underwear, but then Kirk decides not to let her go back to her husband, who not only didn't get to pop her cherry, but now won't get to open his present at all. I can hear the syrupy theme song, and see Kirk emoting with one eye, since the other was lost to some accident or other. Kind of from the Charleton Heston school of over-acting. I think it might be the movie where Tony Curtis was supposed to have said that immortal line he claimed he never said, "Yondah lies the castle of my faddah," proving you can take the kid out of the Bronx, but can't take the accent out of him.

    Speaking as a female person, I'd have hated the first night thing. You saved yourself for the person you fell in love with (hopefully) and then you have no choice but to let some gross, entitled asshole be the one to pop you? I'd have gauged out both of his eyes! Or waited until he was asleep and pulled a "burning bed", or "Lorena Bobbit" on him.


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