Everybody else’s job seems easy. The guy at the gym is certain he has a simple herbal remedy that will cure almost anything. Doctors think it would be a few minutes’ work to sort out the tax code. And engineers have quick and easy solutions for the most difficult social problems. People understand that what they do is complicated—no doctor would entertain the premise that ginseng will cure anything nor would any engineer ever suggest that designing a bridge is simple or quick, but things other people do, now that’s a snap.
Blogging is no exception. If you don’t actually do it, it seems pretty easy. Just sit down, type for awhile, hit “post” and voila. Of course, it’s not at all that easy. Coming up with ideas can be excruciating (read Mark Twain’s piece about being a newspaper columnist in Roughing It). The actual writing can be agony (just sit down at the typewriter and open a vein—attributed to many). And the process of organizing thoughts and fact checking tedious and lengthy.
Even the process of deciding to push the “post” button can be a challenge. This week we received an excellent contribution from Kate Torok on the topic of maternity leave. It touched off an extraordinarily intense and complicated offline discussion on the S&R staff discussion group. We thought we’d share this discussion, both for its intrinsic interest but also as an example of what goes on behind the scenes of a small site trying our best to not just put out content, but to do content that is relevant and thoughtful.
One thing I have noticed is the post-feminist trend toward using the word “deserve.” I hear it all the time, especially from women, and especially from women born after 1960. The phrase “I deserve happiness” drives me crazy. Why do you “deserve” it? Were you especially good in a past life?
I dont think people deserve much in life. I think the fact that I have a US passport and a nice life is my good luck, but there’s no universe in which I “deserve” it.
I particularly don’t think people deserve to have someone else pay for something they want. I think Dr. Sammy should get health insurance, but not because he “deserves” it, but rather because access to health should be part of a cohesive and pleasant society. I even think the argument that people deserve redress for wrongs done to their ancestors, e.g., Native Americans, is dubious. Their ancestors deserved redress. The great-great-great grandchildren? Maybe.
I don’t see how anyone deserves more maternity leave. If someone “deserves” maternity or paternity leave, then it seems to me that corporations (who after all are people, too, according to Mitt) deserve to not hire people who plan to have families, because those employees cost more.
I also don’t see how someone who has a child and uses up their vacation deserves more time off than someone who does the same job and chooses not to have a child. Why should the author deserve maternity leave and Sammy not?
I am all in favor of maternity and paternity leave, but I would also give sabbatical leave to non-parents (as Australia does). And I am in favor of it because it makes for a more pleasant society, not because anyone deserves it.
That last bit reminds me of an argument that raged through a company I worked for back in the late ’90s. To wit, how come smokers got smoke breaks while the rest of us got stay chained to our desks?
In the same vein, pro-choice advocates make a mistake when they talk about a woman’s right to control her own body. That’s a self-destructive framing that waves a red flag at pro-lifers. They just think it’s another way of saying “I reserve the right to murder my baby: stop me before I kill again.”
A better phrase for pro-choice might be that banning abortion “threatens the integrity of the family” because of the strain it puts on families who’s teenage daughter is pregnant or on older moms who can’t afford another mouth to feed.
On a related matter, make sure never to use the phrase “entitlement programs” because it makes speaking up for Social Security sound like “I deserve money for nothing” to conservatives.
I am pro-choice, but I actually think of pro-choice as not forcing someone to have a child they don’t want or face a unsafe illegal procedure.
And the whole abortion argument makes me queasy. Had my wife asked my opinion (which she didn’t) I would have chosen abortion rather than have our first child. We were poor, I was just recovering from cancer, had no insurance, etc. What a horrible, irrevocable mistake that would have been. I have been terrified of abortion ever since. I could live with a pro-life country. This is probably the only place I agree with slugs like Nino.
But yes, to your point, framing matters, and framing maternity leave as “deserves” is just wrong.
Otherwise: Everything is context. You’re reading the word “deserve” in an individualist frame, and that is in fact how Kate was using it, but what happens if the word is interpreted within the bounds of what you say here – the social context, the context of an advanced, functioning society, instead of in a social Darwinian milieu?
Yeah, a lot of people say “I deserve” and yeah, a lot of people act pretty entitled. I know how hard I’ve worked just to stay alive and hearing whining for more more more from people who haven’t begun to understand what it is to struggle even a little drives me nuts, too. But what if the phrase is “we deserve,” and what if “deserve” is less about entitlement that what we have earned as a society, what we as a society genuinely benefit from? That changes the game a little.
As Russ says, framing matters….
“I deserve” is a lot like the conservative “I earned.” How often is that meant to connote “with no help”? An old boss had that attitude, even though I knew his father gave him the money to start the business and rescued his ass multiple times. Or my grandfather, who liked to point out how much governmental help his whole generation got and now pretends like it was all sweat of the brow.
I’m coming to the conclusion that both sides of the American political divide have very strange conceptions of societal context.
Maybe what we all deserve is an economic system wherein a decent life is possible with a single earner so that we can rebuild our family values and there’s enough for even liberals to be stay-at-home moms or dads.
OK, so “deserve” could be a synonym for “entitled.” In some ways.
It seems to me that both males and females are on the “I deserve happiness” kick – but that genre of “deserve” might be an isolated case in its universality. I know I’ve been there – divorce or prozac? People in my parents generation seemed to choose Prozac as happiness was not in the wedding vows but commitment was. I wasn’t really looking for happiness, per se, so much as sanity.
But that’s sort of isolated.
In the Declaration of Independence, TJ used the high-falutin’ “endowed by their creator” rather than “deserve” or “entitled to.” It gives the imprimatur of Some Things having been bestowed upon humans by a higher power and that’s GOOD as opposed to humans just going after those things which would make them Spoiled. The DoI talks about “pursuit of happiness” (rather than property), so the “H” word is pretty ingrained in the American character.
But we get to “pursue” happiness, not necessarily achieve it.
And, it wasn’t important enough to make it into the Constitution.
It seems that the Constitution does spell out some of what we “deserve” and it can be argued that health care, regardless of commerce and tax clauses, is implied by government promoting the general welfare. But that’s a whole other issue.
I wasn’t brought up with the idea of entitlement – I took working for things seriously. I took earning things – maybe including happiness – seriously. If I ended up in a bad relationship, I had to at least consider that I had earned the unhappiness. When I think of “deserving” I think “in spite of any effort or work on my part” or “just because.”
I guess the one I can’t explain is abortion, which requires one to get pregnant. I couldn’t do that. Probably the one thing in my life that I can say – “Did I DESERVE to be infertile?” – and answer, “no.” I didn’t work for that. Although I have to question whether I did influence it at some level because I really HATED the pain and mess associated with periods (sorry for the reference guys) – maybe I thought myself into infertility in my early teens.
But I don’t go around saying “I deserve a new dress.” I might want it, I might be able to afford it, or otherwise justify it, but “deserve it?” Nah. On the other hand, do I say I deserve a glass of BIG glass of water or a small glass of Gatorade after riding my bike home from work – I might say that even though, truthfully, I earned it.
If I say “I earned” or “I worked for” something, do I have to be considered a conservative? I’ve gotten lots of help – and I acknowledge that.
I have heard more than one middle-aged guy explain an affair with the “I deserve” line. I do think that shows like Oprah and inane books like Eat Pray Love have associated it more with women, but it is the same phenomenom, and just because I hear it more often from women doesn’t mean I am correct or that women feel that way more than men.
I’m gonna side with parents on this one in terms of leave being essential and generally what is offered is too short.
I think that leave is important on many levels, the least of which being it is hard work growing and birthing a person, and then ensuring it thrives in its first months. Do I think that because they “deserve” parental leave that as a non-parent I “deserve” time to sit around drinking wine and making art? Not so much. Maybe if our society was more centered around the good of said society instead of the individual and we had programs in place to ensure that we all lived good, worthwhile lives then I would feel differently, but then maybe we wouldn’t be having a conversation about “deserving.”
Also, I’ll see your Eat Pray Love and raise you The Game. You can hate Eat Pray Love all you want, but it’s mainly a navel-gazing attempt at self enlightenment. I’m not even sure that it qualifies as someone thinking they’re deserving. It’s just sort of self-centered, whereas the assholes who buy into The Game make bars and other social scenes miserable for EVERYone, regardless of whether they want to be involved or not.
Not at all does it make you conservative, Cat. I was just saying that conservatives like playing that card almost as much as they like decrying the “entitled” prerogative of liberals.
I use a rule of opposites: those who cry loudly about what they’ve earned probably haven’t; those who cry loudly about what they deserve probably don’t. And whatever the US government accuses other nations of doing is probably exactly what it’s doing.
Re “earning”: When I say I earned something, I understand that accomplishment, hopefully, in a largish context. For instance, some folks were born into connections and wealth and I by god earned every chance I ever got. This is true, assuming a certain context. But not true at all in another.
For instance, if you wanted to argue with me, you’d point out how I benefited from scholarship and grant programs that aren’t available to 99.9999% of the people who ever lived. And I’d say yes, no doubt. So I use these terms in a context that I assume we both understand – the late 20th century America context. If I’m talking to someone who doesn’t share that context, I will use different language because you can be born on the wrong side of the tracks in the US and still be better off and have more opportunity than just about anybody else on the planet.
These days, though, we have different groups and different people using the same words and assuming that there’s a shared context when there isn’t. Words like “deserve” and “earn,” for instance.
I’ve been mulling this over all day from an evolutionary/biological context. If our main biological imperative is to reproduce and raise our young, it sure seems that our society (as an evolutionary advantage) could do more to empower us to be more effective parents.
Of course, being an enlightened society, we’re encouraged to think beyond our biological hardwiring, so it’s no surprise that our society fails us in something so fundamentally associated with our biology. In fact, our society devalues and, in many ways, disregards parenting altogether in favor of a greater emphasis on, say, making money. Most of us would say we value good parenting over money, but the social structures we operate in say differently—otherwise, Kate wouldn’t have a grief to air in the first place.
Not all societies have evolved along the same path ours has—something else Kate has pointed out. Parenting falls higher on the list of social priorities. From an evolutionary perspective, there’s no way to yet tell which sociological path is a better adaptation for long-term species survival. From the very personal perspective of a parent, though, it’s disheartening to see that other societies have said what ours does not: Yes, parents DO “deserve” to have it a little easier as they try to fulfill one of their most basic biological imperatives.
Sociology vs. Biology—Nurture vs. Nature. Hmmmmm….
Of course natural selection tells us that no parent “deserves” to raise his/her offspring and that no offspring “deserves” a good upbringing. In the wild, parents get harried by predators, weather, shortages of food and water, parasites, and a host of other things. Those of us living in the First World tend to forget that simple fact because most of us are so removed from those things. In exchange, parents get harried with things like jobs, insurance, traffic, health care systems, and babysitters—socially constructed obstacles rather than natural. In that context, maybe parents do deserve a break because there’s a moral component to the socially constructed world that doesn’t exist in the natural world.
Finally, since it was her post that got all this started, we invited Kate Torok to have the last word.
I have responses swirling around in my head, but can’t quite figure out how to verbalize it so that it makes good sense. I’m finding myself becoming a little defensive, because while I agree that some of my generation and the younger generation do suffer from the sense of entitlement many spoke of, I don’t think I fall in that category.
I have worked my ass off leading up to, during, and after college and while I’m still what some may consider young, I feel I’ve put a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and hours into my industry and profession. And all of that has been put into the system as well, monetarily speaking. I’ve contributed to the system for years now, all the while paying back monstrous student loans (which I supposed I earned, in a sense). Perhaps it’s me feeling like the overall system just sucks, and that when things happen in my life, as they do for many others, that the system would be able to throw me a bone.
My father – the hardest working, most honest man I know – worked in the airline industry for over 25 years. He worked his way up the ladder, put up with a lot of crap, and came home stressed more days than not. After 9/11, he, along with thousands of others, lost his job. He was too young to retire, so that was it. He was devastated. It was all he knew, and it took him a long time to find a new job and path in life. I was done with college, but had two younger sisters in the middle of their education. I remember my mom telling him to take some time, and get the unemployment checks because, after all, he deserved them. He had contributed to the system for over 25 years and through no fault of his own, he now needed a little bit of help. I know how hard it was for him to take that benefit, and he applied for dozens of jobs on a weekly basis in a hurry to get back to where he was. But I think he did deserve the help. He worked hard to get it.
Now, I do not mean to compare losing a job to having a baby. But, it is all one system after all, isn’t it? Shouldn’t people who work hard and contribute reap some benefit when they need a little help? It’s not the government’s fault that I got pregnant, but it isn’t their fault when people have on-the-job accidents and have to collect short-term disability either. Nor is it their fault when some people have to take a medical leave for mental illness. But those people get time and some pay.
I’m not asking for early retirement here, with full pay and benefits. I’m just asking for a little more time to start my daughter’s life off right, and spend as much time as possible with her.