The word entitlement is thrown around a lot these days, and often it’s used as a pat definition for an entire generation, by a generation that struggles to understand an attitude and way of being that differs from theirs. Yes, I’m talking again about the Boomers fighting the Millenials. We are accused of acting entitled because what we want and how we act varies widely from their experience. But I’d rather hear what we have to say about it. I recently read an article about the comedians Key and Peele who explore contemporary entitlement, defined as “concern with one’s personal rights combined with non-interest in one’s duties.” It feels familiar. Aziz Ansari’s new special features him doing a bit about how we’ve become an exceptionally rude group of individuals, valuing our needs and wants and time over that of our community. Perhaps our brightest comedians (usually some of society’s sharpest critics, if not visionaries) are warning us that the social fabric is breaking down around us, and we’re the problem.
An important piece, however, is the rapid advancement of information technology beyond what many of us could have fathomed just two decades ago. Before we chalk the whole thing up to character flaws, we have to allow for environmental impact. The ubiquity of cell phones changed the culture of public life. Remember when everyone was talking loudly on them everywhere and it was ruining public spaces? The ubiquity of smart phones has changed everything. Now we’re heads down, staring at a screen. Public life almost seems like a quaint concept. Those who lived into the middle decades of life without the technology cannot understand the frame of reference of those who never lacked it. I’m somewhere in between, and I tend to agree that while constant-contact technology creates a marvelous ease to life, in some ways it’s making us less thoughtful people. This was Ansari’s point.
I can remember making plans in the pre-cell phone era, and they involved a certain level of commitment. You had to say yes or no upfront and agree on a time and place. And once it got to a certain time, you had to go, because you had said you’d be there, and there would be no way to reach the person on the other end, waiting for you. You had to be a super duper flake to no-show. Sure, I had friends who were flakes. You’d talk animatedly about, say, going to get tattoos together over the weekend and then when you’d call to find out what time, you’d get voicemail and no call back. Sigh. Now we have a whole new way of making plans. We type a message asking to hang out, and get back “sure! let’s figure it out later!” And then later never comes. Or we make a loose date and because we have the power to connect instantly, cancel it a half hour before. We’re tired, or in a bad mood, or changed our mind (concern with one’s personal rights) and since we can easily get in touch to make or break plans, we figure we can do something together later. The thought doesn’t go much farther than that (non-interest in one’s duties, like consideration of others’ time or feelings).
You guys, I am so bad about this. I’m the first to admit I like to play things fast and loose in my relationships, and I benefit from technology’s speed and ease. With a couple of swipes of a finger I can tell you I’m bailing on tonight because I’m not up to it, and I don’t worry about risking our friendship. I don’t think about your reaction, because I assume perhaps you wanted to cancel too, or you’re cool with it because now you can cancel last minute sometime and I’ll be OK with it, or maybe it’s just we both understand we don’t want to hang out with someone who doesn’t want to be there. It’s better when we both really want it, so let’s wait for that moment and hang out then.
Does this make me shitty, though? Am I lacking qualities that add up to good character? Does me cancelling brunch the night before mean I lack integrity, thoughtfulness, courteousness, loyalty, even? When you text out sick or tired to our plans does it expose a similar lack in you?
Maybe we are too in touch with our own needs and it’s making us less aware of our responsibilities. But if we’re all playing it that way, is it truly hurting anyone, or can we all breathe a collective sigh of relief that we’re not so hung up on social convention? If there’s something you’d rather be doing (like hitting “next episode” from the couch) instead of meeting the group out for dinner, do it. I have those nights too, where I just don’t want to do a damn thing, and it’s no reflection on my feelings about my friends. Is this a sustainable system, or are resentments building up in places of which we’re unaware? Are we getting to a place where we’re so tuned into our inner worlds (or let’s be honest, social media feeds and netflix queues) we’re no longer seeking in-person interaction?
Perhaps contemporary entitlement is the belief that there are no rules or responsibilities, just the rights of the individual, to be fulfilled by the individual. If that were true, we could revel in the fact that when we do connect, person to person, everyone can take comfort and joy in the fact that everyone really wants to be there. Yet I’m not quite assured we’ll keep showing up. We’ll see. I’ll let you know later, once I’ve done what I want to do. This is the face of contemporary entitlement?