Entitlement and Violence
A friend on facebook today said: “What is it with cretins raping or stabbing women, and setting them on fire?! It’s making me so frickin’ angry. Those who think violence against women is a passe issue? Take copious notes.”
While I certainly agree with her sentiment, I’m inclined to think that the underlying problem is broader than one of gender-related violence, although gender certainly comes into it in many instances.
What I’m about to say is personal opinion formed through thinking about the issues and observing patterns and connections. I don’t have any academic or research backing for this other than the interpretative and analytic skills that I’ve developed over years. Nor am I a lawyer, so I’m using terms with commonly understood meanings, not legal or philosophical definitions.
It seems to me that a lot of violence and injustice (and sometimes just plain rudeness) is born out of a sense of entitlement, and sometimes ownership, on the part of the perpetrator and that this is mostly subconscious on their part.
If you view a marriage contract as a deed of ownership, and combine this with a belief that you are entitled to do as you please with your own things in the privacy of your own home, then the idea of inflicting domestic violence is not so difficult to conceive. Few men or women would come at acknowledging modern marriage as a deed of ownership, but I’ll take a bet a great many are comfortable with the thought that they “belong” to each other. In most relationships, this simply means that they feel a strong attachment, as though they are meant to be together, and in most instances it results in caring and putting the other first, or at least taking them into consideration in most things.
Sometimes, however the sense of belonging is accompanied by a sense of entitlement and a belief that part of that entitlement involves control. I hate to say it, but in my experience more men than women seem to develop a sense of entitlement. Rarely does it express itself as setting a wife (or partner, it’s not confined to formal marriage) on fire because she displeases you. It might be “I earn most of the money that comes into this household so I’m entitled to spend more for my pleasure.” Or, “it’s my dinner/plate/computer/cat and I’ll throw it across the room if I want to.” Or, “I’m the breadwinner so the family has to make sacrifices for my career.” Such things are usually just understood though, rarely put into words. There is no need to. Or sometimes it runs the other way, such that a perceived entitlement to protect one’s own ‘belongings’ leads to excessive violence to others. Frighteningly, it seems this is becoming considered the actions of a normal person.
This sense of entitlement, I would argue, comes from a position of privilege and is not confined to issues of gender or domesticity: The student who demands that because they are “paying for this degree” the tutor should just focus on teaching them what they need to pass the assessment and then pass them. The residents of gentrified inner city suburbs who demand that live music venues shut early or be shut down because they are “entitled” to their peace and quite. Older residents in outer suburbs who object to new housing developments because they think they are “entitled” to the view or lifestyle that they originally moved there to obtain. Little old ladies who shove in front of everyone else at the deli counter because they are older and a pillar of their community. The irate customer abusing harried sales staff for a refund on something that they’ve “paid good money for.” The church elder who demands that the young people conform to his standards of dress and decorum. The kid who intimidates others into leaving the back seat of the bus for him and his friends because he is older/bigger/more popular/has more important parents. The Aussie who loudly declares that he “grew here” and anyone who “flew here” should adopt “Aussie values.” Eh, which values would they be exactly? Our bigotry? Our male chauvinism? Our complete disregard for the environment? Or maybe what we are really asking for is their deferral to us. After all, we’re entitled to our way of life, aren’t we?
This is bullshit. We have rights, and of course we need rights. But for the most part this does not extend to self-determined entitlements. We have a right to adequate shelter. We do not have a right to deny others housing because it will spoil our nice quiet neighbourhood, even though we may have a sense of entitlement to just that. Rights, for the most part, are social. Even rights that are exercised individually, like a right to free speech, are usually granted to groups. Entitlements are individual; they are things we feel we deserve because of our privileged position, be that our earning capacity or citizenship by birth or gender or whatever.
With privilege and rights should come a sense of responsibility and not just a sense of entitlement. Instead, we are constantly encouraged to think of ourselves as deserving and entitled to things. Advertising has been telling us for years that “we’re worth it.” ‘Worth’ and ‘deserve’ mean much the same in this context. Mainstream media encourages us to think of national budgets in purely personal terms, asking what’s in it for me and conditions us to expect tax cuts. After all, we work hard, aren’t we entitled to get some of it back? The current mining industry campaign against the proposed resource tax draws on this very strategy, letting you see how it affects you. The media is framing the mining tax issue in terms of entitlements. And the government keeps talking about Australians being “entitled to” various things – Nick Sherry on superannuation and Kevin Rudd on health care give an idea of the way that the phrase is used.
That last link is interesting. Kevin Rudd says, “All Australians are entitled to access medical care and pharmaceutical benefits under our Medicare system. But our system faces multiple pressures.” This demonstrates the connotations of limitation that come with the term ‘entitlement’ when it is used by governments. It happens in health care: we are entitled to help with the costs of health care – up to a point. There are limitations on which medications and medical procedures are covered. And, to an extent it kind of makes sense that there have to be some limitations.
However the context in which I first noticed this, and the one that still disturbs me, was on my children’s school reports, which stated the “remaining semesters of entitlement.” The connotations of limitation and allocation are very clear on the report. What the fuck? A learning entitlement? Used to be that everyone had a right to education. Both sides would struggle along, however long it took, until an agreed standard of education was reached. Now, you are entitled to a certain number of semesters. The implication being that if you don’t achieve what you need to in the allocated period, you’re on your own. Interesting. Haven’t had to put that one to the test, yet. If you have, or know of someone who has, please leave a comment.
So, it seems to me that we have a culture of entitlement that is leaving many of us feeling frustrated and angry when we don’t get what we feel we’re entitled to. Combined with a sense ownership and a degree of privilege or power, this seems enough to drive a small number of us to violence. We all pay, not just the victims, but as I’ve argued above, some groups benefit from encouraging a sense of entitlement and the idea that we deserve things or are worth it. Of course, they’re not encouraging us to set fire to our partners or young girls over whom we have some position of authority. But as human beings we don’t just apply our beliefs about ourselves in the one or two narrow areas that marketers and governments want us to, especially if those beliefs are reinforced in other areas, as they are in patriarchal societies when it comes to the relative status and relationships between men and women. It works at the ideological level, you see.
Maybe instead of a sense of entitlement, we should encourage thankfulness for our privileged positions and remember that most of us, most of the time, are not “worth it” or deserving of anything more than a good clip over the ear.