I love people watching. The other day, I was sitting at the bar at my favorite Mexican restaurant in SOMA in San Francisco, and I couldn’t help overhearing a conversation happening nearby. The guy next to me was telling his friend how he had just bought a new Pixel phone. A couple days after buying it, it slipped out of his hands and onto concrete, completely destroying it beyond repair. Though the screen remained intact, he couldn’t even turn it back on. As he recounted the story, he was, strangely, beaming with pride, because, as I later learned, he had figured out a scheme to get a free replacement: he lied to the manufacturer that an app he had downloaded from the Google Play Store had “bricked” his phone and that that was why the device wasn’t turning on. (Phone manufacturers often offer warranties for phones that have been hacked by third-party apps.) The customer service agent believed the story and offered him a replacement deal if he shipped the device back. “The phone was the postal service’s responsibility, not mine,” I remember him saying to his friend. “They just assumed the phone hardware was ruined during transit.” His friend who he kept calling “dude” sat there intently listening to the story. They spoke for another couple hours, not really saying anything at all.
There was a blindness to remorse that I heard in the story of the guy at the bar that troubles me. It’s the kind of disregard that is at the heart of entitlement. I’m deeply disturbed by the growing sense of entitlement I’m seeing in society, online and off, and I believe we can do better.
An entitlement in its most neutral sense is an earned right, or, more precisely, the perception of an earned right. We are all entitled to certain things: in American society, for example, the constitution entitles us to certain freedoms like the right to speech and the right to assembly. But rights are codes and frameworks and only approximate or attempt to model what our daily lives should actually look like. What happens when, owing to injustice or offense or harm — or, in rarer but not uncommon instances, narcissism and other pathologies — we perceive that we are owed certain unearned rights, that, in other words, there exists a deficit in what we perceive we have earned and what we believe we are owed? And how do we confront that deficit?
I started getting interested in these questions before I stumbled upon the tech bros and their hairbrained schemes at the bar. The answers are tricky because they involve us in making determinations about our collective needs and priorities, and ultimately involve us all in coming together to agree upon a certain set of rights — the messy, unwieldy, unending democratic process of attempting to resolve the unresolvable paradox of finding common ground in a society of individuals. But however messy and unwieldy it may be, what’s clear is that we do have to try, because, when we don’t, resigning ourselves to the way things are, things get out of whack: a casual observer of the recent college admissions scandal in America, can easily recognize the kind of privileged entitlement that can overwhelm and even break the sturdy foundations of a sensible, commonly-agreed upon framework of rights and responsibilities when fame and fortune warp a sense of what is earned and what is owed.
There is a striking correlation between our warped sense of individual entitlement and the rise of the use of social media platforms online, a perverse connection between the individuation that happens on social networks like Facebook and Instagram and a growing sense among us that we have been wronged. Maybe social media has so thoroughly conditioned us to expect selfish forms of gratification that we have lost our ability to care about anyone else. Maybe it’s as simple as recognizing that we all have much more information now than we needed to know and perhaps we even wanted to know about other people and thus we have many more opportunities to notice — in comparing ourselves to others — how unequal we all really are.
In a free capitalist society like ours in which, inherent to its basic functioning (and perhaps necessary to its flourishing) there must exist some measure of inequality, there will always be real and perceived injustice. What worries me — and I have begun to notice this more and more — is that increasingly we are responding to these perceived and actual slights with destructive entitlement.
Destructive entitlement is when, in response to a perceived slight or injury, a slight or injury which threatens our sense of what we have rightly earned or are owed, we see ourselves justified in acting in ways that are hurtful, vengeful, spiteful or dangerous to others even if out of a legitimate grudge for a past unfairness. Destructive entitlement is repeating the anger and abuse that we experience in our interactions with others; it’s the mind-numbing remorseless revenge of the aggrieved and enraged.
Destructive entitlement can take many forms. It is well-documented that sexual abusers are more likely to have been sexually abused as children. When the bully in the schoolyard bullies another person he does so because he feels unsafe, insecure and powerless, likely because he himself has had safety, security and power taken from him.
We can also observe the destructive entitlement with particular clarity online, especially on dating apps. I have been horrified by my experiences dating online and on apps and the destructive behaviors I’ve encountered there — abuse and bullying, trolling, neglect, rejection, looking-over-your-shoulder carelessness and general nastiness. While perhaps not as traumatic as the kinds of cyberbullying and abuse that are especially common among young people, ghosting is a particularly poignant example of how hurtful behaviors can repeat themselves online. Ghosting is the act of cutting off communication with another person with no explanation or reason. Whether inadvertent or not, ghosting causes great psychological harm to other people.
Ghosting is a form of destructive entitlement: my right to ignore you is more important than your right to a clear and direct response. When someone ghosts us, we are left with two uncomfortable options: internalize the rejection of the person who cuts off communication with us, assuming we are the reason and the cause of the silence, or pity them, explaining their absence as a mark of their own struggle. However we choose to see it, we are left alone behind our screens with no real comfort, and, perhaps even more troubling, we are left in a world in which tomorrow when we go back onto these apps, we know that one of the most tormenting, awful experiences out there has become accepted practice. Because we feel unworthy, invisible and rejected when we are ghosted, we justify not responding to the next person we encounter by seeing them too as a potential ghoster, treating them the same way as we expect them to treat us. In other words, we ghost because we have been ghosted. It’s a negative feedback loop, and the destructive entitlement continues…
Of course, not all bad behavior can be explained by a person’s prior perception or actual experience of having been wronged. For all I know, nothing more than mindless opportunism or an impulse toward anarchy can explain the actions of that dude at the bar. But, thinking about it with more care and consideration, maybe he grew up in a poor family and had lived a life up until that point during which things had often been unfairly taken from him? Maybe he had just been passed over for a promotion at work despite years of dedication and toil? Maybe he once had simply followed the rules and watched as someone else broke them and got ahead of him for it? The point is, if even just one of us turns to destructive entitlement (in the case of the dude at the bar the destructive part of this version of entitlement being something close to theft), like a large stone dropped into a still pond, our actions can have giant ripple effects outward. I have spent my entire adult life studying and developing social networks, and thinking about connection in the digital age. Nothing is more important to me than the question of how we can begin to connect with each other online again more positively, and in such a way that we avoid falling back on these destructive habits and behaviors. We can break out of this cycle but it will require great attention and effort.
False modesty, passive aggression and self-deprecation are certainly not the answer. We can’t break out of the cycle of destructive entitlement if we pretend that a wrong is not a wrong. One challenge of recognizing someone else’s pain and trauma lies in the limitations of what we can know about other people and how they are feeling. What I mean is, whether or not a slight is real or perceived — whether or not someone’s sense of entitlement is justified or not — is not always for me to decide about you. As Leslie Jamison rightly argues in her essay collection The Empathy Exams, compassion and belief are not the same thing.
Even if you are the type of person who chafes against political correctness on the left, dismissing liberals as “snowflakes” and worrying about the softening of our culture more generally, you likely would not do well to respond to someone’s sense of injustice with dismissal. And just as those on the right should not police other people’s feelings, those on the left should also not assume that everyone understands why we feel we have been wronged. We can’t expect better treatment if we don’t demand it. We can’t expect people to treat us with respect and dignity and compassion, if we refuse to account for ourselves. It doesn’t do any of us any good if we all, individually, just sit back, sending out mean tweets into the world as we sip from the solo cups of our sorrows.
A better way is to model good behavior; it’s making an effort to engage with other people in an honest dialogue about past hurts and injustices. Making other people aware of how you have perceived the injustice and acknowledging how you feel is the root of constructive entitlement. Constructive entitlement starts with recognizing your pain and trauma and sense of having been wronged. It’s recognizing your self worth and your right to be treated with dignity and respect. It’s also recognizing someone else’s pain and trauma and their self worth and their right to be treated with dignity and respect.
When we develop a sense of constructive entitlement, we have more power to stop our own destructive behaviors and, consequently, we become less likely to continue these destructive behaviors into the next generation. We become the model of the treatment we wish to receive from others. We become the example of the entitlement to which we can all agree — the right to being treated with fairness and decency. We give ourselves the space to forgive. We might just also allow ourselves the audacity of the entitlement to make someone else’s day a little bit better, to bring a little bit more goodness back into the world. The best way to cheer yourself up, Mark Twain remarked, sounding an unusually serious note, is to try to cheer somebody else up. Now that’s something I can get behind.