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Entitlement, Control and Consequences
[Commentary] Sword attack an indictment of our society
Nicolas van der Leek (Nick)     Print Article 
Published 2008-08-20 03:30 (KST)   
Is desire its own justification? Are we entitled to have what we want no matter what the cost to others, ourselves and the world? And how do these apparently harmless desires (elicited by movies, music, celebrities and advertising) manifest in the real world, if at all?

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An 18-year-old schoolboy arrives at school with a face painted black, wearing a mask (in the style of the heavy metal band Slipknot) and brandishing a sword. His peers goad him, saying, "Come on Ninja, what are you going to do?" The boy then goes on a slashing spree, striking the neck of a 9 year old (killing him) and stabbing three others, two of them gardeners on the school campus.

This isn't a B-grade horror movie; the incident is making national headlines in South Africa. A clinical psychologist, Dr. Gert Meyer, has referred to the incident as "an indictment of a society that does not fear the consequences of its actions."

The schoolboy with the sword was described by his classmates as someone who seldom spoke in the classroom, and as "a quiet teenager." Meanwhile, the traumatized local community is blaming drugs, Satanism and heavy metal music for the crime. A local police officer was reported to have dismissed these suggestions, saying, "Someone, of their own free will, can kill another person." The police officers reiterated that whenever a crime occurs people seek to pin the blame on something, some influence that precludes the culpability of the perpetrator.

Dr. Meyer, referring to the killer's strange behavior after the bloodbath, said, "He doesn't fear the consequences of his actions because he doesn't see these consequences in society." Immediately after the incident the boy sat down on a low wall with the sword, and when taken to the headmaster's office -- offering no resistance -- said, "What now, sir?"


There can be little doubt that in this particular case, music and theatrics (fantasy, in other words) did exert a powerful influence. The killer was 18 years old -- not an adult -- but certainly less impressionable one would imagine than someone half his age. Yet what was the boy thinking, going to school dressed as a warrior, carrying a sword? Who did he think he was and what did he think he was entitled to? It is worth observing that the boy only launched his attack at the insistence (the encouragement) of his peers. So who is guilty? The boy or his peers? The answer is that the boy is culpable, but so are we as the society that made him.

The entitlement that exists in society is in fact chronic. South Africa's disappointment at having not won many Olympic medals is evidence of the country's mindset. An Olympic medal, for example, is earned through hard work. The columnist David Shapiro writes: "[To] avoid a repeat performance [few Olympic medals] it is essential that South Africa move its centre of gravity away from a culture of entitlement to an ethic of excellence." This is true in the rest of the world also.

Entitlement at the most basic level is reflected in a growing trend: the desire to have sex whenever and with as many people as we can get away with. Even when the decision is made to consciously procreate, this is conducted with a sense of entitlement.

Most people feel entitled to have children whether or not they have the resources (emotional and financial) to take care of them. In many cases families are started when the parents themselves are not financially independent; in fact, they may be addicted to one or several substances. Families are started by parents who have not considered the implications of a long-term commitment to care for a dependent. Many people show dysfunctional abilities to care for pets, for themselves, for their environments (the interior of their homes), let alone for progeny.

In a more general sense, the convention of having children isn't even debated despite the growing strain on planet-wide resources for energy. This sense of entitlement (wanting something despite seemingly obvious and exorbitant costs) is also clearly evident in the project of suburbia, where each person expects to be able to have a car, a job and various accessories for this lifestyle.

In a world approaching seven billion people, around one-eighth own cars. A psychology of entitlement is unsustainable and disconnected from reality. It is as ridiculous as Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, who feels entitled to remain president of that contrary, despite evidence to the contrary.


It is easy to imagine that we human beings are in complete control. Many of us imagine that it is not possible to die at any moment.

When we drive our cars, we have the ability to propel ourselves at speeds that would be impossible without these machines. In these cocoons we have gadgets and instruments under our control -- everything from climate control, to music, to communication devices. We can also pay for the privilege of driving using a card -- providing the illusion that something comes from nothing, and that human beings are untouchably clever. Except of course when you crash into the vehicle ahead of yours (while talking on the phone) or get lost or run out of fuel. Under these circumstances the fiction of control comes into focus.

Do we have control over our finances? Why then do we have multiple credit cards? Why are we surprised to hear that our homes or cars might be repossessed? This is not only a problem for individuals, but whole businesses, governments and companies. And, of course, all of these are populated by the selfsame individuals. Us.

We may believe we have control over the environment, but the only constant is change, and we have no control over that. Think about the weather. About natural disasters. Hurricanes, earthquakes. In many cases even insurance companies do not cover "Acts of God" and worse, nuclear explosions (acts of humankind).

If there is any value in having children (and I am sure there is), it is in learning that we cannot control other human beings, how much they love us, how much they will respect us. We cannot control aging and many other ordinary conditions, although we can of course try to ameliorate these circumstances. When we realize we don't control the world, we begin to develop a greater respect for it, and a sensitivity to the world and ourselves as participants in it.


There are consequences, and as the young schoolboy discovered, once you have murdered a fellow pupil (for whatever reason, even if only to prove to provoking classmates that you could) you cannot go back to school as though nothing happened. You cannot attend assembly and go to class as normal. The consequences are that those involved in goading the student are also culpable, but no more so than the boy who took the sword to school. And people reading this article, and newspapers, may feel justified in pointing fingers, but we are all part of society and our societies are connected.

A darkness is brewing, and has been for some time, in modern society. There is something seriously wrong with the way we live. We have a cheap view of ourselves and others, and all our possessions. We may believe that things and feelings are more important than people and relationships. Our entertainment is filled with sex and death, as though these were commonplace, but with none of the consequences (diseases, babies, baby bills, coffins, funerals, etc.).

The consequence of our honeymoon psychology -- where we imagine we have plenty of entitlements without consequences, where we can get something for nothing forever and ever -- is that we become divorced from reality. That does not mean reality does not exist, simply that we are unaware of what is happening in the real world, and thus are less prepared to deal with it when we have to face it. When that time comes, it may well involve a breakdown. There might be violence; there might be bloodshed, bankruptcy and unhappiness.

Those who are alive right now have one life, on one precious planet in the frozen wastes of space. That is not an idea we ought to get used to. It means each moment is precious, and every action meaningful -- "echoing through eternity."

In order to deal with our habituated sense of entitlement we have to shine the light of consciousness into our lives and learn to respect and appreciate the extent to which we are connected to the world and how all those systems are connected into us. Once we learn to do that, we come alive again like a flower after the rain, and so does everything else around us.

For more about the writer, visit www.nickvanderleek.com.

©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Nicolas van der Leek

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