Who do you think you are?

I thought I’d posted about “entitlement”, and came to write a new post bouncing off that one; but I can’t find it. Perhaps it’s buried in some other topic. Anyway, the gist was to note the usage of the word to mean practically its opposite, particularly in the States: someone who you say is “entitled” (not to anything in particular) has in fact, you feel, a misplaced sense of entitlement. Not specifying what to only underlines the gargantuan proportions of such a freeloading attitude. It’s further implied that a sense of entitlement is always essentially misplaced; people should have the get-up-and-go to solve their own problems (or perhaps rather the humility to accept them; it’s usually other people we are talking about). The idea of legitimate entitlement to anything is recast as a foil to fecklessness. The very fact that you lay claim to something puts you in the wrong.

What I wanted to add today (after so long without posting) is a generalisation of this Catch-22 thinking. First, another example: according to the Twelve Steps, you are either “in denial” or “in recovery”. The idea of healthy moderation — let alone Dionysian exuberance — is excluded; laying claim to it condemns you from your own mouth. This looks like an expression of Puritan distaste for all worldly pleasure, and it would then figure that the various “Anonymous” movements are particularly at home in the US. The classic example is alcoholism, but there are any number of others, including such nebulous pop-psychology as ‘co-dependency’. Any such theory offers a total explanation of the sphere of human life it covers, in particular of disgreement with the theory.

Moving further afield, three heuristic life tools including the same mechanism are Marxism, feminism and psychoanalysis. The catch in the first two cases is when the situation of the subject is used to delegitimise disagreement: you would say that, wouldn’t you … I rush to affirm my sympathy with all three, albeit guarded. Although I think I might well be among the first against the wall when the Revolution comes, and prefer my radicalism from the armchair, because the cleansing apocalyptic fire is after all destructive, I believe in the possibility of the psychotherapeutic relationship as a humane discipline. It’s just that it’s open to misuse. This can most easily be seen in the vulgarisation of Freudianism in popular discourse, of which I suppose the term “in denial” is an example.

The false dichotomy of Matthew 12:30 is an archetype of this form of thought: “He that is not with me is against me”. Jesus of course also said “he that is not against us is for us” (Luke 9:50) — a less paranoid strategy, but the same insistence on the importance for others of one’s own question. Religious matters (in the sense in which Christianity or Judaism are religions unlike Graeco-Roman polytheism) are by definition personal, not to say existential; it is all about who we are and where we stand, which are the legitimate business of psychoanalysis too. But only if we choose to enter into that therapeutic covenant. In the public forum all must have equal standing be they black or white, man or woman, stoic or epicurean. No-one stands in judgement over their neighbour, whatever they may think of them privately.

1 comment
  1. Paul said:

    Entitlement used to mean Lord So-and-So’s government-sponsored and supposedly God-given right to occupy his broad-acred estate and bully his quasi-serfs around in pursuit of an ultimately diminishing profit from it… Now it seems increasingly to refer to the hard-won right of the common-man to a decent wage, a modest council-house, free healthcare and a pension. Some category error in that shift methinks… Paul Krugman is very good on this issue, from a US perspective, where race is a much more clearly unjust cut-off point than the sempiternally fudged class distinctions between Brits….

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