Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

And Now Some Words About this Word, “Entitlements.”

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I have stated numerous times on this blog that using the right words in framing the discourse of political debate can give one a competitive advantage. I cited George Lakoff, Jeffrey Feldman and Murray Edelman’s works on this subject, all of whom state in varying degrees how the competitive use of language can often determine who wins political arguments.  

Language is an important tool, prompting a wide variety of thoughts and emotions. Words also have their own sensory entry points (Stanislavsky) and can elicit sentiments that can shape perceptions, actions and outcomes. Words are also cleverly disguised and codified, according to Henry Louis Gates, by arriving at “direction through indirection” and words can be utilized, says Murray Edelman, as “symbolic cues.” What we say, how we say it and what we don’t say are critical dimensions of daily discourse. 

In the political realm of public discourse, the word “urban,” has come to be a code word for “black.” Welfare, is another term usually connoting lazy folks (mostly black), living on the public dole, who wrongfully hustle the system for their own financial benefit. “Entitlements,” is yet another buzz word that usually denotes people receiving something they have not earned but believe they have a right to obtain.

This term seems to be mostly applied to black people in America and sometimes refers to poor people in general. Every time I hear this word I pause and I almost cringe because it usually implies that people of color and poor folks are expecting some pay-out or hand-out from the government which they don’t deserve, because as free riders all their lives, they have been too lazy to work for it.

Strangely, I never hear this word used in the context of corporate pay-outs, or tax relief or other benefits or hand-outs that come to them by way of the government.  I never hear it used in reference to other groups in society who get most of the free gravy and really don’t need it! I only hear the word “entitlement” used as a code word, describing how “certain” groups of people are always expecting more from society but giving less or nothing in return – how they continue to game the system at any cost. It conjures images of irresponsible people lacking self-discipline by not doing their fair economic share, by not pulling their full weight and not earning their keep and who therefore have no right to expect or receive the monetary largesse they demand from their government.

It is true that in any society there are segments of people who fit this description. However, most people who receive any form of benefits from the government, as entitlements, have paid into the system over the course of their working lives. There beneficiaries expect to rightfully get their benefits when they retire or otherwise stop working. They have a perfect right to expect those benefits and are entitled to them.

So words like entitlements can be used to unfairly characterize people, places and things, and can become pejorative labels that smear rather than endear recipients to the American public. Think about it. When you hear the word, “entitlements,” of whom do you think? Do you think of wealthy folks or large multinational corporations? Usually not, because the assumption is that they pay their own way and should obtain any tax break or entitlements they can get. Ask yourself what community you think of when you hear the word “entitlements.” Do you usually think of black folks or poor folks or other disenfranchised folks who you are led to believe are not entitled to receive those benefits in the first place?

This word is used as an encryption device to describe specific people and their “unjust, unwarranted and unreasonable” expectations from society. It is also employed to inherently delegitimize them as persons, to imply that they have the audacity to expect or to ask for things they should not be getting. So when the word entitlement is used, it sets into motion a whole constellation of thoughts, feelings, perceptions and assumptions. These assumptions downgrade, delegitimize, devalue, and in some instances, virtually criminalize the persons receiving federal benefits. It creates a great cloud of witnesses who behold and condemn the undeserving.

But it seems to me that in our representative democracy or constitutional republic, we are entitled to certain rights and blessings as citizens. We are entitled, under the Constitution, to equal protection under the law and to a whole host of benefits that accompany such rights. In this regard, we are an entitlement society and the conditions to qualify for these rights are nothing other than being human. Some rights require recipients to be American citizens, some not, also benefitting those who have residency in this country. There are some benefits for those who just come here as a visitor.

Thus, if a person sells his labor to another person or persons, they are entitled to a living wage. If citizens cast their votes and expect them to count, they are entitled to have their votes counted.  If a person gets sick or afflicted, they are entitled to see a good physician. If a person earns enormous sums of money, they are entitled to make decisions about how those funds will be used – either to the benefit of, society, or at least not used to the detriment of that society. We are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and the unconditional guarantee of those human and civil rights. Have we forgotten these important truths which should all be self-evident by now?

Most Americans have expectations of what they can do for their country and what their country can do for them, in times of need. So, our entitlements cover a broad spectrum of expectations that we believe will enhance the quality of our lives in America. This is part of what makes America great.  We all are entitled to certain benefits and rights as Americans. This is one of the great gifts and blessings of living in the United States of America. William Bennett once said all we have to do to gauge America’s greatness is to look at the many people coming to America and then see how many of them want to leave once they get here.

When we use the word entitlements as a way that seeks to demean certain segments of the population, because they have the expectation that America can provide them what America has promised to them, then we tarnish and diminish the great purpose for which we have been called to be a unique nation, under God.

The word “entitlement” should not be used as shorthand to connote some ill-gotten gains by some illegitimate people – but the term should celebrate the nature of our national character and the potential of our American ethos as we strive to provide liberty, equality and justice for all people.

Whenever we hear the word entitlements, we should not automatically spiral downward into dubious forms of cognitive devaluation by engaging in personal accusations and recriminations of certain ethnic and racial groups, but we should think proudly of the legacies of self-governance, affirm the values that make for equal opportunities for all people in our democracy, and create a society where all persons can actualize their greatest potential as citizens of a great nation.

Entitlements are something that we should gloriously celebrate and not censure. In hearing this word we should not think of what’s wrong but of what’s right with America. We should work to help as many people as possible in their pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.  We are all entitled to something greater and higher, as Americans, which is part of our collective vision as citizens. We should never forget that we have worked hard to put something into America – as most of us have done – even as we expect something back from America. And for those who cannot help themselves, and who have not given their fair share, we should still be proud to fashion a society that will work to ensure that those persons too can have life and liberty and pursue happiness. They are still justly entitled to their full rights as American citizens. We should joyfully provide those blessings without judging, belittling or shaming those who receive them.

Now, enough about this word “entitlements.” Perhaps we should just coin another term or phrase to use instead of this one. The word, like the term “friendly fire,” just does not do justice to what it denotes to too many.  So a critically-thinking and caring public, those who are still mindful of how words influence and impact us, seek something more.

Perhaps we should expand our understanding of the real meaning of this word like I “expanded” my understanding of marriage when, as a newlywed, I painfully discovered that my wife felt “entitled” to wear my good socks. My existing ideas of entitlement were quickly amplified into a new awareness. The word had definitions of sharing that went far beyond my personal expectations of what I was entitled to keep and what I was expected to give in return.

Now what word or words should we use instead? We are a society where every single person can reasonably expect to give and to receive something of value from their country. So, we should be mindful that all Americans are recipients of some form of entitlements that enhance their way of life, and in the final analysis this should give us all great pride in being Americans. That is because we live in a society that cares for its own.



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