A Sense of Entitlement
“All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.
The thing about working in a library is that books pass through one’s hands like flotsam creatures through tidepools; it’s difficult not to hold onto the ones that catch your eye. And it was just such a book that has set me off on a rampant case of introspection lately: Why does he do that? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men
by Lundy Bancroft.
I found it on the new books cart, waiting to be processed and released to the community. And I used as many of my last few minutes on break to flip through it as I could. Bancroft has been working with abusive men for fifteen years, and he writes in order to dispel myths about male abuse and to provide sources for women who are stuck in/want to avoid relationships with such men. As it transpires, abusive men, whether their behavior takes a physical or a verbal form, are the way they are not because of myths about their insecurity or their own abusive past, or even their difficulty in controlling anger: most men of this type do in fact have a level of control that they choose to exercise, more often with people outside the family. The reason abusive men behave the way they do is that they believe they have the right to do so
. And until that precious belief can be changed, they aren’t going to change. All the medication and therapy and accommodation in the world won’t change them unless they can be persuaded to give up the conceptual notion that they are entitled
to treat their wife/partner and/or children on their terms alone.
And frankly, it’s no wonder that it doesn’t usually happen. Because this belief of justification, this sense of entitlement, is not just a mistake that needs to be corrected. It’s an almost primal impulse, a foundational belief that the holder builds his whole being, his sense of self, his psychic integrity, around. How do I know this? Because I do it too. My own heart showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly, as C.S. Lewis explained about his mental processes writing The Screwtape Letters
I’m not at all saying that this means women are just as culpable as men in bad or abusive relationships; I agree with Bancroft that the societal phenomenon of the abusive man emphatically does not have its equally powerful evil female counterpart. What I am saying is that this sense of entitlement is at the heart of human evil, and that it comes out most clearly when it is allied to some form of power.
I got rather depressed thinking about the matter. It seemed to me that I could think of a discouraging number of times that I had inwardly railed against family and friends for not taking me on my terms, for insisting that I give as well as receive, that I accept being wrong about something—anything. I could remember hours’ worth of feeling the utmost level of frustration that my rights were being denied: the right to be left alone, uncriticized, unstirred from my mental repose, not having to deny my own importance or absolute control. And I suspect that the primary reason I don’t exhibit this kind of thinking in actual behavior is that I haven’t got either the cunning or the power to justify it to others.
I’m saying this not because I want to have a Lisa-trashing party with myself as the guest of honor. I’m saying it because I really want to find out, using myself as a specimen, if this sense of entitlement can be altered, and what is the least painful way to do so. They say if you want to change the world, you start with yourself.
But I also can’t help but think about what this phenomenon means for world change. I’m thinking for example of changes in the church (the Episcopal Church being for me the new yardstick)—women’s ordination in the seventies, the blessing of homosexual unions now, the racial civil rights movements of the twentieth century. Arguments for these changes, and I’ve seen a variety, seem to center around a sense of entitlement—i.e. it’s fair
for these changes to take place, that such changes ought to go uncriticized, and should be accepted on terms other than one’s own. Strident voices. Aggressive chants. It has always seemed to me that unless these changes could be justified on a self-evident (or at least reasonably evident) basis rather than a mere claim for even-steven fairness, the changes would be weak choices rather than morally courageous ones.
I still think that. But I now also think something else. It occurs to me that any request, demand, or call for a social change of this type has been met with a sense of entitlement on the side of those in power—a sense of entitlement that is greater precisely because it is allied to the power of authority: “those uppity Negroes,” “those harpy women,” “those militant gays.” In other words, by the time the debate takes on any practical significance whatsoever, it’s no longer at all about a moral conundrum, or a practical solution, or a definition of terms; it’s about power. It’s about who gets to decide whose importance is in the ascendant, whose valuable time will be wasted, whose self-definition will of force be altered. And woe betide us if we decide out of hand that we
are the ones who will remain untrammeled, no matter which side of whatever debate we are on. Because that is where moral disingenuousness begins: at home.
Meanwhile, at home, I fight my everyday battles, both against myself and against others, and pray for a blessing.