A big political story in the UK this week has revolved around one Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson - widely known, of course, as ‘Boris’. He wrote an article published early in the week in which he said that Muslim women who wear the burka look like ‘post-boxes’ or ‘bank robbers’. The rest of the article argued against the banning of the wearing of burkas in public places, a ban which Denmark has just introduced. But the damage was done…and the political capital made. A great deal of coverage has been given to the episode which many have seen as part of a bid for the leadership of the Conservative party.
That is not what concerns me here. What strikes me most is that behind so much of Boris’ behaviour and his many outbursts there seems to be a deep sense of entitlement. He can trace his ancestry back to King George II and King Frederick Wilhelm I of Prussia. He received a privileged education at Eton. He then went on to Balliol College, Oxford, which has produced many prime ministers. Four years ago, he published a biography of Winston Churchill and he sometimes seems to try to model his behaviour on the great man. Boris is refusing to apologise for the offence he has caused. Overall, he gives every evidence of thinking that he is above common decency, somehow entitled to rule, entitled to lead the country.
At the other end of the social scale, my mother exhibited her own minor brand of entitlement. She spent most of her life faithfully looking after other people. These included her ageing parents, her ailing husband, her two blind siblings, besides me, my sister and some others too. She never expected a great deal of life but she had one small sense of entitlement. She did believe that after spending 50 weeks of the year looking after other people, she was entitled to a good two-week holiday. Good not in the sense of going somewhere exotic but in the sense of good weather. She seemed to believe that she deserved a sun-lit break from her responsibilities and had something uncharacteristically complaining to say if the climate failed her. If she were still alive, she would be rightly horrified to be compared to Boris Johnson. I use her as an example only to demonstrate that all of us - even the most dutiful people- have a certain sense of entitlement.
Entitlement is dangerous because it leads to a sense of superiority. It leads us to take people for granted. It is often expressed in thoughtless and hurtful use of language. It leads to abuse of power. It can be seen not only in politicians but in families, churches and golf clubs.
The polar opposite of entitlement is a sense of gratitude. It is the mark of a mature person to be glad to acknowledge those who have helped them to become who they are. I even read one writer who said that we all have a psychological need to thank someone. For some that will be God. For others it will be some significant mortals. But I do believe that recognizing our indebtedness and thanking others helps us to flourish ourselves. It helps us to understand who we are - something which, so far, seems to have eluded Boris.