Tuesday, November 1, 2011

On Culture of Entitlement (Part 1 of 2)

TITLE: On Culture of Entitlement (Part 1 of 2)
SCRIPTURE: Acts 20:32-35
Written by: Conrade Yap

“Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:32-35)

"Trick or treat!"

My Daughter's Pumpkin Carving
It's Halloween again. Once a year, kids, teens and young people will unabashedly knock on your front doors asking for candies, chocolates, and anything that is sweet. It has become a tradition in itself. Here in North America, Halloween is a fun day. In the morning, many school children will dress up in various costumes. Some wear elaborate movie characters. Others don a simple pony tail ribbon or some facial makeup. Even teachers get into the act. Everybody is in a cheerful mood. It is after school is where the Halloween celebrations really pick up speed. They will gather in pairs of small groups to raid the neighbourhood for candies. Of course, homeowners do their part by putting up delightful decorations outside their houses to welcome these visitors. The 'scary' props are actually quite impressive. It shows the creative part of being human, all for the fun of it. For all its negative religious undertones, Halloween is truly a family friendly event. Kids are happy. Candy sellers are happy. The dentists are happy.

While I see many excited kids in the neighbourhood, behind the fun, the chocolates, and the candies, hide something more sinister: An attitude of entitlement. Like Halloween where kids expect handouts, the general society at large too expect handouts. This week, I will argue that there is a deeper concern besides being aware of this culture of entitlement. It is knowing it but NOT doing anything about it.

A) Free Expectations

Individualism remains a challenge in every society. John Donne's famous words, "No man is an island," is often quoted by people to remind people including themselves that they do not live for selves or selfish reasons. What strikes me as inherently more true is that while no man is an island, man has that innate craving to carve out an island for himself! The infamous five words that individualistic people ask are: "What's In It For Me?"

By asking this question, one seeks to find out the benefit before entering into any contract, buying any service, or investing any money. The premise is simple. As long as the transaction benefits me, I say yes. If it does NOT benefit me in any way, I say no. It makes me sad whenever small businesses close down. It makes me sadder that when these businesses offer 'closing down sales,' the people immediately swarm the stores to wipe out all the goods in no time. The classic example is the case of the ill-fated tablet, the HP Touchpad. When it is first launched at an entry price of $499, sales hardly take off. When it is reduced to a fire sale price of $99, the entire inventory vanished within hours. The same can be said of newspapers. Free newspaper bins are the ones that get emptied much faster. The public generally likes free stuff. From free emails to free newspapers, complimentary samples to free coffee, people like free things. Free things only make the culture of entitlement even worse.

B) A Culture of Entitlement

The culture of entitlement is widespread. Citizens assert the right to be heard by the leaders. In the business world, thanks to the Internet freebies regularly dished out by the big corporations like Google, Youtube, and free WiFi services from fast food restaurants, people are generally spoilt for choice.  Unfortunately, freebies make the problem of entitlement worse. While consumers benefit, they too become spoilt.

The culture of entitlement has also affected the elderly. Many countries in the West have a social security welfare scheme. Upon reaching retirement, adults get a certain amount of money from the government. One advantage of such a system is that it compensates older workers when they give up their jobs to younger ones in the workforce. The overall effect is to reduce unemployment. At the same time, it is a token of appreciation to the worker for the many years of labour and contributions to society in general. It is common to see retirees repaying the welfare by volunteering themselves in charitable organizations in the neighborhoods they are in. A culture of entitlement turns this system on its head.

In this culture of entitlement, older workers refuse to retire early, feeling that they are entitled to receive back from society for all their past contributions. For many, after struggling many years to get promoted to their levels of seniority, are they going to simply give it all up? They easily justify their decisions to hang on to their jobs by blaming inflation and the tough economy. Young graduates think that they are entitled to a job, and that it is the responsibility of the government to find them one. A culture of entitlement is like blood clots in the system. If nobody gives, nothing flows.

Some civil servants I know often give this excuse for not helping.

"If I help you, who helps me? If I do you a favour, how does that do me a favour?" 
In societies where everybody expects everything and gives out nothing, everybody loses.

C) If Nobody Gives, Everybody Loses

I remember the story of how Robin Hood and Little John first met. They were trying to cross a stream on narrow beam of oak. Robin Hood happened to hop on one side first. Before he could make his way across, along came Little John on the other side of the stream wanting to cross over. Since the oak was large enough for one person to cross at a time, one of them had to give way. Robin claimed that he was entitled to go first. Little John rebutted that based on his bigger size, he was entitled to go first. Both of them refused to give way. As a result, they got stuck in the middle. The only way forward then was to wrestle each other until one wins the right to cross over first.

I have driven in both Asian cities as well as North American cities. I must say that driving in the West is a lot more pleasant compared to Asia. In the West, people generally adopts a first-come-first-serve attitude. When I try to change lanes, the moment I signal my intention with my signal lights, drivers tend to be generous in letting me pass. In Asia, this is hardly the case. In congested roads, it is common to find situations that when nobody give in, everybody loses. Drivers with a strong and arrogant sense of entitlement are least likely to give way. The trouble with our culture of entitlement is not only in public roads, but in our private lives. Anthony Selvaggio observes the effect of individualism in marriages. He says:

"Our self-absorbed individualism has had profound effects on our culture. For example, consider how the view of marriage has changed in our culture. Marriage was once thought of as the union of two people into one for life, but now marriage is viewed as a flimsy contractual arrangement between two companions who agree to temporarily live together until their individual needs are no longer satisfied by the arrangement." (Anthony Selvaggio, 7 Toxic Ideas That Pollute the Mind, P & R Publishing, 2011, p73) 

IF we feel that we are entitled to our own happiness, people can often become a means to meeting our ends. When people no longer meet our end, we go our own separate ways, treating people like disposables. For an individualistic person anchored in a world of entitlement, self comes first. All other people is a distant second. Even God has to serve him.

D) Not Doing Anything About It?

Speak to anyone and they will be quick to tell you that they KNOW we live in a culture of entitlement. They can even point out examples of everyday life where it is every man for himself. As they complain about everything, invariably the question will come to rest on the most important question.

  • "What about you?"
  • "What are you doing about it?"
  • "Are you going to sit on your hands, shrug your shoulders and accept this culture of entitlement all around you?"

Many Christians remember Jesus saying that it is better to give than to receive. However, remembering is not enough. We need to do it. .. .. . . .

Oops. There's the doorbell. Time to give out candy treats, lest the kids go unhappy. I will write more next week.

Thought: Our refusal to submit to one another in Christ usually stems from an overly high view of ourselves, and a sadly low view of others. Aided by a laser-like focus on self-need, individualism  rationalizes everything from the angle of self. We are seeing a great reversal. While the builders at Babel seek to reach the heavens by building a tower, modern individualists seek to drag heaven down by building a pulley of ropes tightened with narcissism, individualism, and egotism.


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