Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Sense of Entitlement: The Enduring Legacy of Tiger Woods Affair

Tiger Woods has finally addressed the TV Camera and said sorry. No questions were allowed and the whole Press Event was a tightly managed affair, but it was still something which opened up the possibilities of his redemption. It will hopefully stop the circus in the media, all the digging of details and speculations more sordid than facts, and the act of saying sorry will start the process of atonement of this very talented individual.

Whether it is right or wrong to let him get away with what he has done is a question for his family and it is best left at that. Those who ponder the moral aspects of allowing a very talented and very wealthy man to use a carefully orchestrated show of penitence to gloss over his past misdeeds, will have a lot to debate on. Yes, it may have been a carefully scripted statement by an army of PR specialists, but that does not take anything away from the pain of standing in the public view saying sorry for private affairs. It may all be a charade, but still saying sorry is saying sorry and digging deeper to understand how sincere it was may actually be a waste of time. The key question for all this morality angle is, interestingly, the question of entitlement, a point made by Tiger Woods himself.

Despite the media focus on what happens next, the implications of this affair is not about whether or not Mr Woods reconcile with his wife and return to Golf; those are matters for his family and the administrators of the game. These are valid questions, no doubt, but mean little to those who are not directly related and do not play or manage the game. That will include most of the people following details of the affair, including those youngsters which Tiger Woods spoken about and said sorry to, those who idolize him and see his success and talent as a model of achievement and behaviour.

From this point, as from the point of view of the morality debate, the entitlement issue raised by Tiger Woods resonates with relevance. He said he grew a sense of entitlement, a sense that normal rules that apply to others will not apply to him, because of his success, his wealth and his talents. This is the central point in all the moralist view still - whether he is being allowed to get away. And, indeed, this is a point to ponder for rest of us, because we are all guilty, on our own little world, of behaving with a sense of entitlement, whether it is about little indulgences or bank robberies.

I am certainly guilty of my sense of entitlement, when I expect various things to be done for me or when I flaunt my status, ability to spend money or the fact that I am a developed country resident and expect other people to do certain things for me which they would not do otherwise. I have lately become conscious of this behaviour, but I must admit watching the statement of Tiger Woods on BBC had a 'that's it' effect on me. I did not equate myself with his success or wealth, obviously. But the sense of entitlement is not about its scale, but the very fact itself - that we all, as individuals, treat ourselves as exceptional and believe that normal rules will not apply to us.

I would argue that true good deeds come out of shading the sense of entitlement and almost all the acts which are considered to be sins in conventional morality are steeped in the sense of entitlement by private individuals. For example, let's talk about prostitution and those who pay for sex. As I write this, I am sitting in a Manila hotel and if I walk about, it is the all too evident and all too available. Now one, when paying for sex, possibly argues to himself that he is doing it because he can - he has the money and the woman involved is ready to go any length for the money - and the usual norms of morality does not apply. Rather, because of a social acceptance of the consent based on free will, the question of prostitution has turned into a question of freedom rather than of morality.

We can indulge on various forms of this debate. One can possibly say that prostitution is an useful social institution that helps keep marriages intact. Those who are unfamiliar with this argument may as well pay heed to what some of the apologists of polygamy say: That men are usually polygamous and it is best to allow them to have multiple wives rather than paying for sex. Another extreme moral argument for prostitution is that paying for sex usually allow people to avoid emotional entanglements that invariably comes with it. In all these arguments, of course, one can see that money is being flaunted as an acceptable alternative to marital responsibility or emotional entanglement. The whole moral construct is based on the reductionist ability of money to translate human emotions and attachments into a more tangible form of transaction, and thus endowing the owner of money a free reign on human needs and a sense of entitlement outside the realm of human sensibilities.

One can take this debate further and say that nationalities and skin colour usually takes the place of money because they also have the power to change other's responses. One can look at the Koreans or the Japanese in the Philippines, and see that their behaviour, originating from the fact that they have a stronger currency and more money, has now morphed into a sense of national entitlement: Best girls, best cars, best houses and better treatment than the natives. Unfortunately, American and British tourists have also earned themselves a name for being entitlement centric, they are usually seen to demand things played to their 'home' sensibilities wherever they go in the world [I must say that I know many decent Americans and Britishers, and I don't mean to stereotype here; however, this is a comment on a real public perception, coming out of real experiences all over the world]. The same could also be said about our engagement with the nature, and this particularly perverse logic that Bush Administration used about not hurting the lifestyle of Americans to justify their non-participation in Global Climate change initiatives. To be fair, the same sense is being seen in the attitude of countries like China and India today, a sense that they should be excluded from Global efforts on Climate Change, just because they are powerful industrializing countries.

I would conclude that shading of one's sense of entitlement is the start of moral behaviour, and an essential precondition of living a moral life. It will certainly be for Tiger Woods, as it would have been for grandees like Bill Clinton who blazed the trail before him. But it will also be same for us small individuals, as the entitlement in whichever form usually creates a perverse sense of justice and fairness. It is more practical and possible to shed the sense of entitlement than it sounds: All it takes is a bit of self-awareness and the ability to critique own actions and behaviour rather than being insecure, defensive and mired in justifications. In fact, it is pragmatic to live a life of self-critique, rather than waiting for a crisis of sorts to start the process.

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