Perhaps one of the greatest shortcomings of our modern and sophisticated society is the disparity between those who think they’re entitled to something and those who do not. Until we get this sorted, we stand precious little chance of living in a truly fair or reasonable society.
One day, I was on my usual way home, and was exiting the Yorkdale subway station to get my car. At the exit, there are two sets of double doors that swing outward. I habitually steer right through these doors to avoid foot traffic entering the station to my left. Indeed I almost always use the rightmost door. That day, there was another person just slightly ahead of me and to my left. This person went through the left mirror image door, just in front of me. She only pushed the door open halfway, which required her to step to the right as she went through and she ended up right in front of the door I was about to use.
In case you’re confused by my description, consider the image below. This is the view going in to the Yorkdale station entrance, so the door I used is the one on the extreme right. The one next to it is the one the woman used.
By the time I realized what was happening, it was too late – I was already pushing the right door open and the door clipped her on the heel of her shoe.
Obviously, it wasn’t a hard hit as the door continued to open. I walked on.
About 100 metres on, I went through the covered bridge that connects Yorkdale Mall to its parking structure. Halfway along the bridge, I heard from behind me: “You f***ing idiot!”
I looked around. I was the only person on the bridge at that moment. I turned, just in time to see, down the stairs at the Mall end of the bridge, a woman stomping off. It was then woman whose heel I’d clipped. Obviously, her remark was directed at me. She’d followed me all the way from the subway entrance just to swear at me.
Was she expecting an apology? Presumbly. Would she get one? Not till hell freezes over.
Now I’m quite a considerate person. I hold doors for people who seem to need it; I yield to other traffic even if I have the right of way; I let people jump queues ahead of me if they seem to need it. I always assume everyone deserves as much respect as I would normally expect of others.
But if someone shows particular disregard for that common respect, well then I do not turn the other cheek. In fact, I’m perfectly happy to get into the gutter with that person because, in my experience, such people wouldn’t understand taking “the high road” anyways. That goes to my sincere belief that a rational person must object emphatically to incompetence and apathy whenever it occurs. But that’s another story.
This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened to me. Earlier this year, I was flying from Stockholm to Amsterdam. I’d been given a lovely poster by my hosts, which was in a cardboard tube to protect it. To get the tube to fit into the overhead cargo bin on the plane, I had to point it across the aisle and push it in. I was facing the bin while doing this, so didn’t see another passenger trying to push past behind me. As I lined the tube up, the end of the tube caught the man on the eyebrow. Glancing over my shoulder, I said “Sorry.”
He gave me a withering glare and said, “You should be.”
Excuse me? If he had shown some patience and given me a few seconds to stow my stuff, instead of trying press through the ridiculously narrow aisle, his head wouldn’t have lined up so nicely with the end of my poster tube. Why is that my fault?
These kinds of events are troubling to me. Sure, if i’d’ve been a little more attentive, I might have avoided scraping the door against that woman’s foot, or bumping that tube into that man’s eyebrow. But I could also say the same of them. The woman should have considered that during rush hour one should expect doors to open unexpectedly. If that man had thought of the contained nature of an airplane, he’d’ve realized he could gain nothing by trying to push by the guy trying to stow his stuff.
So what provokes these kinds of behaviours?
These people are clearly behaving asocially. That is, they’re not being antisocial because neither one of them instigated anything that went contrary to social norms. They were asocial because they acted in ignorance of their surroundings, not against social norms but entirely oblivious to them. I doubt either had any serious mental health issues: they were both clean and well-dressed and their behaviour seemed generally normal.
Instead, I think the real reason they behaved this way has to do with their perceived place in the Grand Scheme Of Things. I think they honestly thought they were deserving of some special entitlement upon which I had trespassed.
Of course, superficially, one might argue that these were only their reactions to peculiar circumstances that confounded them momentarily. I’m a firm believer that anger is always the result of either frustration or confusion. It may well be that the woman at the subway exit was confused by my “sudden” appearance behind her, and that the man in the plane was frustrated by the inevitable shoddiness of modern airline service.
Still, that they would let their emotions so completely define their reactions troubles me. If such people let their emotions sway them so easily, then how would they react in more significant and important situations? If I can’t trust them to curb their shortsightedness in such quotidian circumstances, can I trust them to drive their cars well? Can I trust them to vote rationally? Can I trust them to make important decisions that could easily affect my life or the lives of my loved ones?
Quite frankly, I cannot. After all, what is the real difference between their moments of a-social behaviour and those more momentous situations they have faced and will continue to face?
Some might say that there’s a huge difference, based on the magnitude of the importance of the circumstance. Walking through a doorway or getting to your seat on a plane are pretty trivial circumstances. Voting in a national election or driving on a busy street are much more significant.
But people who think this have missed the point, because they’re assuming that their reaction in the social sphere matters most, and that importance is defined by circumstance. That is, what matters most is how they are perceived by others. And this, I vehemently disagree with.
What matters most, I think, is how we perceive ourselves with respect to the universe at large and what that says of our place in it. In this view, I really cannot understand how anyone can choose to be obnoxious or have a sense of entitlement that goes beyond the entitlements we bestow on others.
In other words, it doesn’t make sense to compare yourself to others, because you cannot possibly know enough about anyone else to make the comparison meaningful. The only person to which you can legitimately compare yourself, is yourself. And if that’s how you judge yourself, then the magnitude of the circumstance or situation just doesn’t matter; because everything you do defines you, everything is important, all the time.
Of course, your sense of self is impacted very significantly by your experiences (with others), and that’s where we get our sense of community. It’s completely unavoidable that others should impact on your sense of self. But still, it is only yourself and your experiences to which you have any reasonable access, so these are the only yardsticks against which you measure your own worth.
This is why I’m such a strong advocate of experiential learning – learning by doing. The breadth and depth of your experiences defines the body of knowledge you can bring to bear when you look inward at yourself. One of the greatest shortcomings of my parents’ effort to raise me was to send me to a Jesuit-run, all-male high school. I didn’t learn to interact with girls well, and I had no clue of how non-Western, non-Catholic cultures worked. When I got to university, I was confounded that so few people thought my Pope jokes were funny. My high school did a great job to prepare me academically for university, but I had no chance at all to learn about different cultures except through the massively biased and judgmental lens of the Jesuit version of Catholicism. Fortunately, I’m a quick study and caught up relatively quickly. Still, I blew several years of my life thinking that the world worked as did my own myopic community. That’s time I’ll never get back.
But I digress. The point is that reflecting on your life becomes so much more powerful when you have a broad experience base on which to draw.
And if your motivation is self-improvement through reflection, you don’t need to worry about whether others deserve your attention or good will or whatever. You only worry about whether you’ve done what makes you feel good about yourself, in a socially mediated context.
Now, the woman who called me a f***ing idiot – did doing so make her think better about herself? If it didn’t, then why did she do it? Was she just overcome by emotion? If so, she needs to calm down. She could not have possibly felt justified unless she honestly believed that her behaviour was acceptable and warranted. The only way I can see that being the case is if she honestly thought her position in the universe was higher up than mine.
No; if that woman truly lived her life honestly, then she should have accepted what happened as something that, from the point of view of someone else of equal standing to her, took on an entirely different, though equally meaningful, perspective. In which case, she shouldn’t have gotten angry at me.
This is not to say that everyone’s personal views must be treated equally, of course. But to make that kind of judgment requires a pretty good understanding of the other person. I was lucky: I learnt this lesson early, partly thanks to my dad. I found I was often surprised, when I was younger, by how different – yet perfectly reasonable – the points of view of others could be. Even if I disagreed with their way of seeing things, I could understand them.
If that woman focused her life on doing better than she herself had done until then, then I cannot see how her swearing at me made her think she was making herself a better person.
The same can be said for the man on the plane. Why should he think that I should be sorry for hitting him accidentally, when he was trying to rush past me? It seems to me the only reasonable explanation is that he thought he was higher than me on social totem pole. The problem with this is that it doesn’t benefit his own self-improvement – at least in no way I can fathom. He didn’t know me; he didn’t know if I was a murderer or a philanthropist, a fraudster or a doctor, a devil or a saint. At best, he might have assumed I was just a average guy. Which means he must have (a) thought of himself as above the average and (b) believed he was entitled to piss on those below him.
I don’t have a problem with part (a). It’s rather normal to think of oneself as special compared to others. It comes from our instinct for survival, and is perfectly natural.
Part (b), however, bothers me a lot. From where does this sense of entitlement come? Wherever that is, I see it spreading like contagion. Students think that they’re entitled to good grades. Victims of crime think they’re entitled to recompense and even a say in the sentencing of their victimizers. Voters think they’re entitled to public services without fee. Non-voters think their entitled to complain about their political leaders. Patients think they’re entitled to only the best health care possible. Drivers think they’re entitled to speed or to run stop signs. Certain ethnic and cultural groups think they’re entitled to a free ride because of some ill perpetrated against their ancestors. Religious zealots think they’re entitled to impose their will on others.
If this keeps on, I really don’t see things ending well. If this keeps on, I can imagine a world where everyone acts as if whatever they want, whenever they want it, because they’re somehow entitled to it. Obviously, this is neither rational nor sustainable. The key point is that if everyone else gets what they want, then sooner or later the wants of others will conflict with yours, and someone is going to lose.
So we need to stop this culture of entitlement. To make this happen, we need to teach people, right from their earliest schooling, to reflect on their lives and actions, and we need to urge everyone to get the broadest possible experience base, so that they have have the depth to reflect well on their lives.
Of course, I could be wrong. If it turns out that I am wrong, I’ll gladly change my tune; otherwise I would truly be a f***ing idiot.