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Toxic words: deserve

I don't like the word "deserve". It's easy to make a case against the positive use without a reason (e.g. "I deserve this, I deserve that") on the grounds of entitlement. So I won't argue that case. I'll argue something much subtler and much nastier.

I work at a company with a cafeteria. Suppose I decide to only eat one cookie a day, and I eat a cookie at lunch. Come dinnertime I look at the dessert table at the tray of cookies. Would you say that I "don't deserve a cookie"? Of course not.

Why not?

Because there is a logical connection. I choose to eat one cookie a day, I eat one cookie, I have nothing left in my cookie quota for that day. You don't need the concept of "deservedness" to deal with that situation.

So let's look at a situation where the concept is used. "You don't deserve a cookie," your parent tells you. "You left your toys out again." Aha. What is the logical connection between the punishment of not getting a cookie and the mess? None. Yet, the concept of "deservedness" is used to bridge the gap. How does it do so? "You don't deserve a cookie (because you are a bad kid because) you left your toys out again."

Even if it were positive it would be no better. The problem with the idea of deservedness is that someone can be inherently good or bad. Actions have consequences that are desirable or not. Perhaps it may be meaningful to label the actions "good" and "bad", although probably not. But making people good and bad is massively problematic.

Currency is a decoupler. If I have a sheep I might not be able to exchange it for a bale of hay. But I can get currency for a sheep, and exchange that currency for the bale of hay. Deservedness is also a currency. Listen for it. "You deserve a cookie because you picked up your toys." In other words, by picking up your toys, you earned 'deservedness', which is redeemable for a cookie. By not cleaning up, you lost 'deservedness', so you cannot redeem for cookies.

And there's no dividing line between "I don't deserve a cookie because I didn't brush my teeth yesterday" and "I don't deserve cookies." It's all the same scale.

Deservedness is the currency of shame.

There is no way to decouple actions from their consequences without the use of shame as an intermediary.

Positive shame is no better. You can't be a good person without there being a possibility of being a bad person. You can't be inherently worthy without there being a possibility of being inherently not worthy.

Even if there is a logical connection it's still problematic. "I worked hard on that critical project and made my company a million dollars. I deserve that raise." The disconnection is still there. Is the consequence of working hard a raise? Perhaps. But you have changed the raise from being a consequence of your actions to being a consequence of who you are. You have given yourself inherent value.

And inherent value cuts both ways.


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