Despite my being an English tutor and my love for writing, I don’t care when someone misuses a word. I poke fun at my boyfriend when he says “unthaw,” and I encourage precision in language when helping someone write an essay — and that’s about it.
So when I say that I’m frustrated by the misuse of the word “entitled,” please know this isn’t me getting up a soap box to rant about something trivial.
We use the word “entitled” to describe an attitude, often in a scathing, derogatory way. Bratty kids are “entitled” and don’t like to share; millennials are “entitled” and feel like they deserve what they haven’t earned; poor people are “entitled” and think that they can live off the government. Using entitled in this way — as an adjective — has become so popular that it’s the first definition that pops up when you Google entitled definition.
Entitled, however, is also a verb — and a legal term. The Constitution, for example, entitles all American citizens to certain rights. A number of other laws and legislation outline various entitlements that different groups have, everything from tax breaks for churches to college tuition for veterans. In this way, everyone is “entitled” to many things — to a lawyer, to the minimum wage, to the freedom of religion, to freedom from unlawful discrimination. And yes, that also means that everyone who meets certain criteria is entitled to unemployment benefits or Medicaid.
The overuse of the word “entitled” to mean “spoiled” or “bratty” leads to attitudes, rhetoric, and even policies that cause people harm. As a fairly benign example, take a conversation that I had with my family a few months ago. It came up over dinner that I wasn’t registered with the student office of disabilities at my school even though I do have a major medical condition that applies (both practically and legally) as a disability. My mother, in response, beamed. “It’s because I didn’t raise you to be entitled,” she said. She was actually proud of me.
But here’s the thing — I am entitled. I am legally entitled, as in it-is-my-right entitled, to the accommodations I need to be successful in school. I am not registered with the office of disabilities because there are no blanket accommodations I need, due to the fact that a) I am in remission, and b) the only accommodations I tend to need are extra excused absences or a chance to make up a missed test, and doctor’s notes work just fine for those. If I needed other accommodations, I would immediately register with the office of disabilities. Because — again — I am entitled to do so.
But that doesn’t make me “entitled,” as in “selfish” or “lazy” or “spoiled.” Implicit in my mother’s statement is this: because I don’t receive accommodations, I am a better person, morally, than someone who does.
When I told her that I would register if I needed to (and that it had nothing to do with how she raised me), she shrugged and said, “Yeah, I’m just saying lots of people in your position milk it.”
Unfortunately, as I know and as anyone who needs accommodations knows, asking for any accommodation is often seen as “milking it.” Someone exercising a right granted to them under the ADA or a number of other laws quickly goes from being entitled to “being entitled” — and that’s a dangerous, slippery slope.
It might still seem that I’m complaining about something trivial — “oh, someone hurt your feelings?” — but it’s important to consider the real-life consequences of constantly telling someone that exercising their legal rights is them “being entitled.” There was a point in time in which I was very, very sick, and I should have taken a few weeks to heal. The illness was painful, yes, but also dangerous; I was already lean and lost nearly 20 pounds in a less than a month. However, I didn’t do anything that was good for myself. I still walked a couple miles in the blazing Texas heat every day to make it to-and-from class; I still lost sleep studying for tests that I didn’t ask to have moved, even though I was entitled to request that they be.
Along a similar line, I knew someone who put off being admitted to the hospital for a life-threatening condition until after she was done with that semester at school — all because her condition was mental in original. After all, asking for accommodations for mental illnesses is even more shameful than asking for accommodations for a more obviously physical condition.
How is any of this healthy? How is any of this good?
Lots of people like to take stories like ours — the sick person who pushed through grueling hours at school/work/whatever or the sick person who succeeded without ever asking for help — and turn it into “inspiration.” People (like my mother) often applaud me for being such an over-achiever “despite” my illness.
But this attitude only contributes to the problem. It’s still saying that I am a better person than someone who did take off a few weeks from school, or that my friend is a better person because she didn’t allow her condition to inconvenience her professors. This simply isn’t true. And if you say this, you are saying that someone who’s sick/mentally ill/disabled/etc. should work harder than you ever had to, suffer through more than you ever had to, and, more often than not, risk their lives so that you don’t have to deal with minor inconvenience of accommodating them.
If you aren’t sick, disabled, etc., please remember — you are entitled too. You ‘feel’ entitled too. The difference is that the world automatically provides what you are entitled to, while sick or disabled people have to ask for it. Every college course with required attendance has taken measures to ensure that if you catch the flu or get food poisoning, you can be absent that day without a penalty. If you literally cannot sit through class with vomiting, you are entitled to an excused absence. I, as a student with an illness, am also entitled to an excused absence when I literally cannot sit through class too. However, my situation is seen as be “being entitled” because it happens more often, isn’t associated with a specific germ, and because I have to go through official channels to get that accommodation.
Also: nobody has ever assigned a student an exam in which it was expected they would risk their life to complete it. So why is it, when you have someone who is at risk of seriously harming themselves, are they a bad person for asking for an extension so that they can seek the help they need?
These analogies might be a bit abstract, so here’s a more direct one: if your workplace, classroom, or apartment is on the third floor of a building, you expect — and are entitled to — stairs. You aren’t expected to scale the walls — although you could, you know, if you just tried hard enough — or magically procure a helicopter to go to work. The building was built with your abilities in mind. Likewise, curriculums, work responsibilities, and rules are designed around what you can reasonably be expected to do with a reasonable amount of effort. It’s just so automatic that we don’t even realize it until we have a condition that make that expectation no longer reasonable.
If you think that all these harmful attitudes don’t make their way into our politics, I urge you to look at the proposed legislation and rhetoric that is constantly being regurgitated in Congress. I urge you to look at our president.
For now though, I just urge you to start thinking about the ways we misuse the word “entitled” to discourage people from exercising their legal and human rights. Next time you see someone roll their eyes about how “entitled” someone else is being in asking for accommodations or support — and even if they are having to accept government assistance because of circumstances outside their control — remember: yes, they are entitled. And that isn’t a bad thing.