There is definitely no shortage of emotionally charged issues in our societal and global struggles. Seemingly intractable intolerance and bigotry based on race, religion, sexuality, gender, to say nothing of the many political and military tensions between various nations. With large numbers of people there will always be opposing views, conflicting beliefs, and firmly rooted disagreements. We are never going to see all things in exactly the same ways but that fact alone does not doom us to perpetual division and hatred.
It is possible to coexist while disagreeing despite what current social and political climates seem to protest. The key is to look past the surface issues, to not get trapped and tangled up in the symptoms, and instead dig deeper in search of root causes and sources. Two of the main, and mutually exacerbating, culprits at work in so many of our current struggles are the pervasive senses of entitlement and of powerlessness.
We are too quick to dismiss entitlement as simply the whining of the spoiled or lazy without acknowledging how wide spread and toxic the ideology of entitlement actually is. The distorted perception that wanting something makes it automatically and obligatorily ours is extremely dangerous and gets exacerbated by the ‘instant gratification’ ethos of our current technological consumer culture. It sets us up to perceive ourselves as being treated unfairly by the world if we are denied in any way, making anyone seeming to block us the enemy, and justifying any actions we take to claim what we feel is ours.
Wanting things, even powerfully, is a natural impulse as is feeling frustrated, even powerfully, when we are unable to attain them but the true danger and damage of entitlement is not in the assumptive ownership it is in the distorted capacity to justify atrocious and destructive behavior.
This ‘I want it therefore it is mine and must be given to me’ concept can be seen at work in almost all our cultural struggles.
From racial bigotry where people fueled by xenophobic fears and ignorance feel justified in demanding, even violently, that the world around them mutate to suite their preferences to the massive amounts of debt people accrue chasing happiness under the thrall of the ‘buy now, pay later’ paradigm.
One of the most toxic and pernicious examples is how entitlement bolsters the systemic and embedded notion that male sexual arousal is some sort of all-powerful force which once sparked robs one of all capacity for decision making or self-control and simply cannot be stopped. Examining the roots and sources of this pervasive distortion is a whole other conversation but suffice it to say ‘rape culture’ is precisely the right term for how it manifests.
Sexual and romantic attraction are powerful impulses and the pain and frustration of their rejection can be potent but the idea that simply because someone has inspired arousal in you they are obligated to satisfy it is an example of entitlement in one of its most nakedly narcissistic and sociopathic forms. These kinds of assaults are horrific and destructive and the truth is sexual arousal isn’t even the true culprit. It’s used as the excuse and justification for the true core distortion which is the inflated sense of entitlement, ‘I want it therefore it’s mine’ as if a person holds no more meaning than a new sofa.
We are entitled to feel what we feel, to think what we think, but unless we are living alone in a cave we are not entitled to simply behave however we choose.
The involvement of even one other living being requires accommodation and compromise which can be complicated and uncomfortable but is an essential part of what it means to genuinely be part of a group. Unbridled entitlement might seem to offer a shortcut around all that complication but in truth it is merely a toxic self-delusion which turns people into predators deliberately lying to themselves in order to justify their atrocities.
Running full headlong into and against this consumer culture endorsed idea of entitlement is an almost global sense of powerlessness born of the staggering, and ever increasing, economic disparities at work in our world as well as the suddenly exploded scale of our knowledge and awareness of what is happening all around the planet.
The seeds of the ‘upper 1%’ machinery can be traced back to post World War II and the industrial revolution where the innovation of mass production laid the groundwork not only for our current consumer culture but also the pyramid shaped model of companies wherein the CEO’s grow farther and farther removed from their minimum wage earning work force. Bolstered by the long standing misperception of wealth as an automatic indicator of character and authority the pursuit of wealth became warped into seeming patriotic and intrinsically noble. The disparity between executive salaries and working wages grew to astronomical proportions and the world of massive wealth rather quickly climbed into bed with the world of electoral politics.
The result, we are now feeling the full impact of a relatively small group of people with phenomenal wealth impossibly separated from the lives and experiences of the vast majority of people being in positions of enormous influence over policy decisions, shaping them to benefit their own interests while passing off the cost to others. To mainly those who are already in dire financial situations.
When day to day subsistence is an intense struggle it can seem impossible to have any sense of power or control over the world around you.
Compounding this are the instant global connections now afforded by technology which enable us to access news and information from virtually any part of the world at any time. Thanks to the global news machine and immediate circulation offered by social media we are not only exposed to information about what is happening in every corner of our own countries but also in our neighboring countries and even those on the opposite side of the globe. And because the world of journalism has been infected by the ‘ratings’ paradigm that information is most often highly over sensationalized to make it sell better.
As humans we may be pack animals by nature but we are not intrinsically equipped to handle knowing everything about everything happening everywhere on the planet. Simply look at the health impact national leadership positions tend to have on those who ascend to them. They often age noticeably, even dramatically, during their time in office and these are (typically) people who are experienced and prepared for the stresses and pressures. In our personal newsfeeds we see what is happening in far away parts of the world and feel for those affected but feel unable to do anything about it.
We take on the weight of caring without the reprieve of being able to take direct action, if any action at all.
A Volatile Combination
Neither the sense of entitlement or of powerlessness exists in a vacuum. They are never limited to only one area or aspect of our lives. If we feel entitled on one level the attitude will, if unchecked, eventually expand to many if not all other areas of our lives. And it is the same with sensations of powerlessness.
As a combination their contrary natures mutually exacerbate. Entitlement might seem like an antidote to feelings of powerlessness causing us to latch onto the idea with a clutch of desperation, even doubling down on it when challenged. But the false expectations feelings of entitlement inevitably produce, and the subsequent failure and/or denial of those expectations, only serves to deepen and enflame our feelings of powerlessness.
Both notions are distorted views of the world but sadly both are constantly present in the messaging and media around us. And once they take root they are extremely difficult break free of.
There are no simple solutions, no vaccines or quick cures for either distortion but there are three truths it is vital we remember.
The first - is that the world around us does not owe us anything. Even those things we view, at least in Western culture, as our fundamental rights are things we earn by agreeing to be a part of the society around us. They are in essence more akin to privileges than guarantees.
The second - is that while some people certainly have greater advantages than others we are never entirely powerless. Except in the most extreme of cases we always have choices. There are times when none of our options are ideal, sometimes far from it, but the one choice we always have is how to handle what we are faced with. It isn’t easy and may feel rather unfair at times but it is still true, it is a choice we always have.
The third - is that we are not alone. Even in situations where we have precious little leverage or impact it is crucial we remember that we are not the only ones in that position. Reach out. Take hold of one another, lean on one another, support and lift one another up. One person can be made to feel powerless but gather enough of us together and even that troublesome ‘small upper percentage’ can be forced to listen.