When did being entitled become such a bad thing?

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If there’s one accusation that is slapped against millennials more than any other, it’s being entitled. Every time we “whine” about student debt, bad jobs, low wages, unpaid internships… anything, the cries from our critics come ringing out.

Basically, we’re spoiled. We ask for too much and what we ask for, well, we haven’t done the work to “earn” it. We want something we have no right to have. There are plenty of things we get without demand–from our family, our neighborhood, our nation–but the line between what we get and what we want always puts us on the end of already having enough. To demand any more is simply immature and if anything, it’s insulting to a society that is already so generous. To some, it’s even too generous.

The idea of entitlement is anchored in how one thinks about rights. The way most people think about rights is received by way of an individualist, property-based mentality–that rights begin and end at the borders of a person’s body. Fundamentally, in this view, rights are inalienable aspects of being human and to respect them is to ensure that each person can do whatever they want with themselves and their property.

It makes sense… until you think about the consequences of living in a society. Societies require that people interact and depend on each other far beyond these simple, bordered conceptions. Massive, abstract mechanisms like governments, nations, and corporations extend across the globe connecting, dividing, and otherwise affecting a wide range of people. Every action we take is influenced by the environment we live in, which is for the most part shaped by humans preceding and surrounding us. Our bodies are not borders but porous filters, our individualities crafted by selection and adaptation.

The limited, private property notion of rights serves not to explain how society works but to be used as a cudgel against social progress. It marks, at any time the speaker needs, what is owned as legitimate and what one is demanding as illegitimate. 

A different perspective
Rights are not, the founding fathers notwithstanding, inalienable effects emanating from our core, our souls, or our humanity. In their own time, the founding father’s oppressed all manner of people–were they denying rights they had just proclaimed or do rights simply not work that way?

In my view, rights are better understood as historical, social configurations. You can argue as much as you want that human beings inherently have the right to life, liberty, and property but it is a material fact that for most of human history, most human beings have been denied those rights. Sure, this ideal right might exist somewhere but functionally, it was not existent or at least, not universally realized.

Rights are primarily brought up nowadays in a defensive way. Hundreds of years after our sacred founding, rights are presumed to have been long won. As people rush to bury slavery and segregation under shovel loads of amnesia, they proclaim with the “of course!” power of common sense that all rights are currently sanctified by law and enforced universally.

When people talk about rights then, it is often in terms of defending their rights to privacy, individuality, and especially property. For the most hardcore libertarian, virtually anything abridging their private bubble can be seen as a disruption of their rights–as shown by how many of them claim the very policy of taxation to be theft. Even aside from libertarians, conservatives, and many democrats too, claim something like healthcare for all is simply too much taxation, as though living in a functioning, mutually supportive society is somehow a necessary evil not to be taken too far.

Rights become a barrier to social progress, used to identify demands for something different as something foreign and untrustworthy, as something alien to the already sanctified, pure, and insulated social body. The social body as it is already has what it needs–any demand for more is like a virus begging for entrance. Better for it to be purged.

Social rights
To see rights as historical rather than individual is to see how each right is an artifact of struggle. Rather than being an inalienable property to be realized or denied, rights can be seen as the result of collective struggles demanding something become normal in society–whether that be the recognition of the vote, freedom of speech, or right to bear arms.

Rights are inalienably social, despite how many libertarians might say, with the dead weight of common sense, that your rights end the moment they cross another person’s. In reality, rights only exist socially. The right to think whatever you want, for example, is meaningless unless you also have the social right to express that thought. The territory of right begins at the moment of social expression. 

In this context, rights are not something to be accepted gratefully but are something to be expanded forcefully. Especially in regard to something like medicare for all, when you can see another country’s citizens having won the right to healthcare and taking it as normal, it must be understood that rights are elastic and justice exists under pressure.

We’re entitled and not ashamed of it
Millennials, so often lambasted as entitled, should articulate a positive conception of entitlement that can be held aloft proudly, defiantly. The demand for something should not be a whine but a shout, a shout from many people together in harmony. We will only win social progress when we are comfortable feeling and saying that we deserve it. 


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