Entitlement, Covert Contracts, Social Libertarianism, and Related Concepts

[Crossposted from my blog with minor changes. I strongly prefer all commentary related to the culture war or dating happen over there.]

One of my most unpopular opinions is that “entitlement” is actually a useful concept.

It makes sense that people have a knee-jerk negative reaction to it. “Entitled” is one of those words, like “rational”, that it is useful to have in your mental toolkit but if you ever find yourself using it you need to rephrase your argument. More on this later; it ought to show up later in the essay but I wanted to put in “I know that there are good reasons for you to hate the word ‘entitled’” in the forlorn hope that this would keep people from writing angry comments before they read the post.

I think that entitlement is a useful concept when thinking about the interplay between these three concepts:

  1. Basic rights and expectations for any relationship.

  2. Boundaries and needs you have in some specific relationship.

  3. Needs that are completely unreasonable.

There is a very common model of social interaction which you might call “social libertarianism,” beloved by poly people, sex-positive people, and jerks who don’t want to get called on being jerks. Under social libertarianism, people have sets of needs and boundaries, and the goal of social interaction is to find someone who can fulfill your needs and whose needs you can fulfill, without violating either side’s boundaries. The only misdeed is to deliberately violate another person’s stated boundaries. No set of needs or boundaries are right or wrong, but some may be incompatible with other people’s. If you enjoy screaming curse words at other people, then all you have to do is find someone else who likes having curse words screamed at them, and the problem is solved.

Social libertarianism often comes from a good impulse. Many people generalize from “I would be unhappy in this sort of relationship” to “everyone who is in this sort of relationship is unhappy and being exploited and a victim of Insert Cultural Boogeyman Here.” Social libertarianism has built into it the idea that people are different from each other, an insight which is all too often forgotten. If you’re the sort of person whose perfectly happy relationships get accused of being unhappy and exploitative and only existing because of Insert Cultural Boogeyman Here, there’s a natural tendency to embrace social libertarianism.

But I don’t think social libertarianism works as a model, because it is in fact actually possible to be an asshole.

For example, if I were friends with someone and they decided to tell me my hair was ugly, my blog is stupid, I would never fulfill any of my dreams, and all my friends secretly hate me, I would not say “I see I have not set the boundary with you that you don’t get to insult me at all my most vulnerable points; my mistake, in the future please don’t do that.” I would say “never darken my doorstep again.” This is because it is actually wrong to insult your friends. I don’t have to set the explicit “don’t insult me” boundary; it is understood. Similarly, I might specify that a car I’m selling is red, but I wouldn’t specify that it has wheels. All cars are supposed to have wheels. It’s a basic expectation.

There are actually quite a lot of these in relationships. “Don’t share people’s private information without their consent.” “Don’t forbid someone from being friends with someone else just because you don’t like them.” “Don’t tell people they are bad people for having a feeling.” Spend a few hours reading any advice column or relationship advice book and you will discover hundreds of basic rights you never knew you were respecting. (Years later, I remain boggled at More than Two spending at least a page patiently explaining why it is wrong to veto a partner’s relationship because it makes them too happy and that makes you jealous.)

I realize the concept of “unspoken rules that are wrong to break” is going to give some of my more socially phobic readers hives. To which I say, as reassurance: this is literally all stuff you learned in kindergarten, it’s “play fair” and “don’t hit people” and “be nice.” Most people get through life fine without ever being confused about this stuff. Some people are actually ignorant, particularly autistic people and people who grew up in abusive or screwed-up homes: I myself was confused until relatively recently about why I shouldn’t share other people’s private information. But if you are, most people will forgive you if you apologize, explain yourself, and don’t do it again. There’s a difference between a mistake and malice, and “don’t treat people’s mistakes like they’re deliberate attempts to hurt you” is one of the basic expectations for any relationship.

On the other end, sometimes people have expectations that are, in fact, completely unreasonable. For example, if I don’t watch myself, I tend to expect that if I just do everything right then everyone in the whole entire world will like me. So I feel a lot of social phobia: if someone dislikes me, it means I have done something wrong, and I need to self-flagellate about my wrongness and carefully search all of my actions until I determine what horribly wrong thing I have done.

I do think, in a sense, my social phobia is a form of entitlement. (Not everyone’s social phobia is entitlement, of course. Probably most people’s isn’t. But mine is.) You can tell, because sometimes I get fed up with the whole self-flagellating/​navel-gazing business and instead start being unreasonably angry. “How dare you dislike me!” I think. “I am a good person and I deserve universal adoration! I should come up with the most cutting insult possible so that you will regret your decision to have any negative opinions about me whatsoever.”

Like most entitled thoughts, this line of thought is a reasonable thing to want. Being disliked feels bad; that’s why we have a bunch of social rules about not explicitly saying when you don’t dislike someone. It’s natural to want to avoid ever having to experience this unpleasant thing. The problem is when a natural desire turns to an expectation that the world should be this way.

Also like most entitled thoughts, when you actually explain it it is crazy. Like, pretty much the only way it would be justified to think this is how people work is if you lived on a desert island for your entire life and learned about people solely through your copy of the Sims 2. Everyone has flaws, which means that everyone is going to be disliked for their flaws by someone. Sometimes people dislike each other for silly reasons: some people are going to dislike me no matter what I do because my writing style grates on them, or I remind them of their horrible ex, or they think my name is pretentious. Even if I were absolutely perfect in every way and somehow managed to talk everyone out of disliking me for silly reasons, horrible people exist, and I don’t actually want them to like me. Their approval would fill me with shame.

One very common form of entitled thoughts is “covert contracts.” A covert contract is when you make up a deal inside your head where if you do something, then in return someone else will do what you want, and then never tell the other person that this is the deal.

Examples of covert contracts: “if I never disagree with you then you will like me.” (This one I am annoyingly prone to.) “If I do the dishes then my housemate will sweep the floors.” “If I refer you to my company, then you’ll do really well on the interview and impress my boss with your good judgment.” “If I spend lots of time trying to solve your personal problems, then you will be my friend.”

The problems of covert contracts are many:

  • The other person might not even want the thing you’re giving them. (Maybe your housemate doesn’t care about the dishes. Maybe your attempts to solve other people’s problems are actually busybody meddling.)

  • The other person has literally no idea that this contract exists, and therefore will only fulfill it by coincidence or telepathy.

  • You didn’t give the other person a chance to say “no” and they might not want to take this deal. (Maybe they aren’t sure if they’ll be able to do well on the interview. Maybe your housemate really fucking hates sweeping.)

  • The other person thought they were getting a favor for free and is going to be really annoyed at you when they discover that you in fact made a deal with them under false pretenses of doing a favor.

  • Sometimes the contracts are just crazy. (If someone likes you on the condition that you never disagree with them, you don’t want to be their friend.)

The solution here is twofold:

  1. Do nice things when you want to do nice things for their own sake, not because you expect to get something out of it.

  2. If you want to make some sort of exchange (dishes for sweeping, referral for good interview performance, therapy for friendship), tell people about it ahead of time and give them the chance to say no.

(In Guess Culture, exchanges are often not explicitly discussed, but instead negotiated some other way. I am not Guess Culture enough to give advice about how to handle this, but I would suggest that your implicit contracts should definitely avoid the pitfalls outlined above.)

So hopefully at this point you can see why I think “entitlement” is a useful concept which identifies a specific class of distorted thoughts that cause harm to oneself and others. Why, then, is the term “entitlement” so universally despised, at least by the non-asshole population?

Two reasons. First, some people say that people are “entitled” when the thing they are is “sad that they can’t have a desirable thing.” It is true that it’s very unreasonable to expect someone to date you even if they don’t want to, but you still get to be sad that they don’t want to date you! It is okay to be sad about the way the world is! This is an awful misuse of the term and people who do it should be hung up by their thumbs.

Second, and more perniciously, it is used to cover up arguments about which of the three categories—basic expectations, expectations that can be negotiated, and completely unreasonable expectations—something is in.

Recently I was watching an old John Oliver clip about the NCAA’s refusal to pay its players. An NCAA spokesperson characterized the student-athletes protesting not being paid as “entitled athletes”. You notice he didn’t say what the student-athletes felt they were entitled to, because saying that would immediately reveal that his position was bullshit. Student-athletes think they should get paid because they are destroying their bodies to earn other people millions of dollars. Of course they’re entitled to it! This is one of those “basic expectation” things. If someone is profiting off your labor, then you are entitled to a cut of it, and you are certainly entitled to not have all of your possible employers form a cartel for the specific purpose of ensuring you don’t get paid.

But if he just says “entitled athletes,” then everyone is like “ah, yes, entitled athletes, getting drunk and vandalizing buildings” and they fail to notice the bit where the student-athletes’ complaint is actually totally reasonable.

This happens all the time.

So I would suggest never using the word “entitled” without following it with the word “to”. Very very few people think they are entitled to literally everything they want. “Entitled” by itself should sound to you as strange as saying “in love” by itself: in love with whom? Entitled to what? And given people’s perfectly reasonable objections to the term, even if you personally use it in your thinking, it might be best just to never use the word at all, instead replacing it with something like “so-and-so has a distorted thought that they deserve Thing.”