Monthly Archives: May 2022

I posted some time ago about “entitlement”:

In my previous post (on “being manipulative”) the two senses of entitlement are at war with one another. But entitlement (or rather, the sense of entitlement) need not even be misplaced to muddy the waters. As a not particularly attractive example, I will consider my own aversion to noise: it’s the grumpy old man within trying to get out (was it Cyril Connolly who coined the aphorism: ‘Inside every fat man there is a thin one struggling to get out’? I will not check the internet for it). There is the actual annoyance, which is real; for example, mobile phones on trains; the conversation need not even be interminable or loud, soon enough there will be another, and it sucks the attention away from a book or contemplation of the view outside the window. But added to that is the thought the person creating the noise is being thoughtless or inconsiderate, possibly amplified by reflections on the triviality and pointlessness of the conversation — it would be understandable if it were of any moment, dammit! — in other words, that I am entitled to be annoyed; and even less attractively, that my thoughts are more interesting than my neighbour’s; but there is nothing I can do, because after all, that’s just what I think (though I am sure I am not alone in remembering a time when trains were calmer spaces). The desire one has for something may be perfectly legitimate (it stands on its merits, or may be balanced against the countervailing desires of others, if it seems worth the trouble of going into it) but nothing useful is added by the sense of entitlement, which indeed may cause greater discomfort than whatever the thing was that provoked it. This is particularly clear with (ahem!) the trivial example I have given, but the same applies just as much when the stakes are far higher. It’s difficult to maintain a sense of proportion, but it’s much harder to meet in the middle if you don’t. The sense of entitlement is like the shadow cast by the matter in question, which if the sun is low in the sky, may dwarf it. I could give examples from my marriage, but that would be indecorous. In the end, entitlement is not just what you can work your way up into feeling it is, but must be negotiated; most commonly, we do so by letting things go. That is not always possible, and that grumpy old man will give himself an ulcer, if he doesn’t learn to save his energy for when it really matters.


There is a constellation of words to which I have developed an allergy, though they still exercise a gravitational pull. What they have in common is that they are a way of wrong-footing someone, by presupposing a view of matters they have not accepted. For example, there is the whole family of ‘-phobics’; there is considerable psychological plausibility in the interpretation they imply, but the word is a bludgeon. Equally, we have no right to tell someone they are being ‘neurotic’ or ‘defensive’. Human relations are indubitably riven with insincerity, but still, we have an obligation to take people at their word, as a matter of politeness and respect. That does not require us to be credulous. Insincerity is rarely a matter of cold calculation. As with method acting, the performance is more likely to carry conviction if you work yourself up into a state over whatever it may be. What then are we to do with the intuition that the other person is being disingenuous, if it is mixed up with a palpable feeling on their part that they are entitled to get their way? That, I think, is common to all such cases; and we are entitled to want things, and fight our corner. The distinction between being straight with one another, and its opposite, does not lie in conscious deceit — cold manipulation is the province of the psychopath. What matters is whether there is an underlying rational foundation for the feeling, and that is amenable to talk. Rather than being sucked in to foul play, we should rise above it. Anyone who has brought up a child knows this. Sometimes — even mostly — it is better to let things go. We need room to breathe.

Philip Pullman is not a writer in the same league as C.S. Lewis, with his lovely lion; but in the books that made him famous, before he became self-righteous and dull, there are some wonderful imaginative creations, not least the “daemon” that each person has, a companion familiar that is a sort of projection of character, that settles to a fixed form in adolescence. Something very like this must be true, but in this cosmology, we must make do with a nebulous and ineffable sense of the quiddity of a person, his smell and eye and presence in a room; just as Aslan cannot be seen, as a lion, by adults. The demon of Socrates sounds a bit like a conscience, the voice that only ever says “no”. Is it always wrong to ignore it? I think it speaks at moments that are a leap into the dark, decisions that seem likely to go wrong, and cannot be revoked, such as suicide, religious conversion, betrayal (“in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er”), adultery, or clicking Send. Mine has given good advice on the whole, but I don’t always listen. It is something more than the precautionary principle. But how can one tell the difference between the pangs of conscience, and a failure of nerve?

There’s an equivalent on the collective level. When electorates deliver perverse results, or the mob erupts, it has lost its compass (as someone said six years ago, “America has elected its id”). With hindsight, we may say it had to be — the ancien regime was rotten — but at the time of the rupture, all there is is the collapse of what went before. Discontent always murmurs, but when things are working, it cannot gather enough force to bring a new order into being. There is, rightly, a presumption in favour of stability, for all the imperfection of any system of government. For it to collapse, there has to be a critical mass. Weakness alone is not enough to bring down the tottering edifice. The perspective of hindsight distinguishes between “good” and necessary revolutions, and irruptions of barbarism; but the difference lies not in the character of the collapse, but whatever fresh virtues emerge as things settle again to a new status quo. At the time, there is just chaos. One example is the displacement of unsavoury but stable regimes in the Middle East “spring” (whether by revolution or foreign conquest). The defects of the old don’t inevitably lead to a superior replacement. Change is chaotic.

Early Christianity turned the demon on its head, as an imp tempting us from the one true path. But such inner voices don’t say no, don’t urge us to hold back, they seduce us into wrongdoing. Considering the question of “good” and “bad” upheavals, whether personal or political, does that mean we must do wrong if we are to change? That’s how adolescence is understood today, though it was not always so: a process of breaking free.