Monday, January 9, 2017

On The Word "Deserve"

Like "lifestyle" the word "deserve" has come to be grossly misused, overused and abused, replacing many another word and concept in the process – and consequently, diminishing the average person's already vanishingly small ability to think.

The word "deserve" properly refers to those things that have actually been earned (like an award recognizing particular accomplishments). To say one deserves something is to make an indisputable moral claim on their behalf. However, the term is being used with mind-numbing regularity in place of words like "want," and "need," and "right" (as in "have a right to"). Certainly we all have wants. (You might want a private jet.) We all have needs. (You need food and oxygen to live.) We all have rights of varying kinds. (Free speech is an inalienable human right, while someone might have a right to the inheritance of a particular property or the award of damages following some injury, given the laws prevailing at a particular time and place.)

The upshot of this is that one may want, need or have a right to the things they deserve – but they do not necessarily deserve the things they want, need or claim as a right. Yet, there seems an increasing insistence on dressing up want, need and right in the moralistic language of deserts. Take, for instance, the immediate cause of this post, which was my hearing an anchor on The Weather Channel say last winter that ski resorts in a particular region were finally getting the snow they "deserve." The owners of ski resorts want and need snow because it enables them to operate their establishments, and a particular resort owner may have done the things ordinarily seen as meriting business success, but it is nothing short of bizarre to say instead that resorts "deserve" snow.

I suppose this particular butchery of the English language contains something of the tendency to view every outcome in a person's life as a matter of their own, personal morality – an idea very much in line with the self-help/religious ideas that have long enjoyed wide currency in the United States. There is, too, what Thorstein Veblen in his classic The Theory of the Leisure Class called the "habit of invidious distinction," because where there are the deserving there are also the undeserving.

It would seem that at the bottom of such things is a deeply conservative impulse to justify – and sanctify – everything as it is, not least the inequalities of wealth and the callousness toward the poor and disenfranchised that increasingly characterize American life. The CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are assumed to "deserve" their seven and eight figure compensation packages (even as they make disastrous decisions), while many vehemently deny that the people who perform the work without which their companies could not possibly remain going concerns "deserve" a living wage. Some people "deserve" megayachts, while others do not "deserve" health care – or even food and shelter.

In other words, the mind-boggling greed of some is not merely excused but justified, celebrated, exalted on the grounds of what they "deserve," while the claims of others to having their most basic physical needs met (and many would say, their most basic rights as human beings recognized) are dismissed on the very same grounds, which happens to be not the content of one's character, but the content of one's bank account, personal worth equated with "net worth." One person is "worth" fifty billion dollars and another "worth" nothing – in effect, worthless.

All of this is a revolting tissue of absurdities which only confuses and cheapens the idea of morality itself. But I don't think it's going away any time soon. If anything, the way the political winds are blowing, it seems likely the tendency will only get stronger.

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