Thursday, 2 December 2010

Deserve and Never

This morning, again, the word deserve emerges from a sentence, waving its arms like a particularly deserving member of the deserving poor. The sentence is about weekend hospital care - apparently more people die in hospitals for lack of attention if they happen to be taken in at the weekend - and what the man says is: We must make sure that the patients get the care that they deserve.

As Dr Johnson once put it: Clear your mind of cant, sir! Even more to the point, another authority (one W. Shaxpere) addresses the question thus: Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping? Good question. I wouldn't - and am I not the most blameless of men? Any football fan moaning The fans should get what they deserve deserves all he gets.

The trouble with deserving is that it is a matter of opinion (students get different marks for their work, people vote competitors on or off in meatmarket TV shows). I wouldn't even say that patients should get the care to which they are entitled. Entitlement suggests that caring for people in hospitals relates to some quality of the patient. I would simply say: Patients should receive the care that hospitals are obliged to give them, and shift responsibility back where it belongs, to the health service.

Desert, entitlement and even right seem to privilege the receiving individual over the institution that is obliged to act in a particular way. It only seems of course because the institution can sit back and wait for such rights to be asserted. This form of arranging a contract isolates the individual. If I pay for something in a shop it is not my deserving or entitlement or right to get change that suggests I should demand it. It is an obligation on the shop to provide it. Of course the shop is not obliged to carry my bags to the door or to pay for my bus fare, not even if I am old and feeble and indigent. That may be an act of human kindness and acts of kindness are not to be contracted. Somewhere in between the act of kindness and the obligation is the ethos, and ethos is collective. Ethos is what I would go for because ethos is mutual.

I am a customer and I want my rights! is one of the most depressing sentences in the English language.

So out with deserve! The word cant, however, deserves to be regularly resurrected.


It is much the same with never, as in We must make sure that this sort of thing never occurs again. A train has crashed, a fire starts, there is an earthquake, someone makes a mistake. This must never happen again. The trouble with never is that it is a futile rhetorical gesture, a promissory note on which no-one can ever (seriously now, ever) collect. It makes you sound determined and caring while the truth is that you are being glib and sententious.

Just before I die I will make sure my death never happens again.


Gwil W said...

May you receive the accolades you writely (sic) deserve.

A word that springs to mind is one misused in German-speaking lands and that is the word Gast (guest).

For example when I travel on the trams as I often do the anonymous voice somewhere in the ceiling often greets me thus:
"Honoured travel guest ..."

Honoured I may be, but I'm certainly not a guest. I have paid for my ticket like everyone else!

Two days ago a subway train broke down in Vienna and the 200 honoured travel guests on board were imprisoned sommewhere in the system of tunnels for more than 2 hours. Some even imagined it was terrorist attack. One or two had clautrophobia problems. They each received by way compensation a travel ticket worth about 20 quid.

It will never happen again of course. Mind you, last week the same train caught fire. But the honoured travel guests were freed after 15 minutes. You see, if it's 15 minutes or 2 hours it'll never happen again because next time it'll be perhaps 1 hour or maybe 45 minutes or some other length of time.

The same event can NEVER happen again for the simple reason that it has already happened and it is firmly in the past.

Ciao George, gwilym

panther said...

"Lessons will be learned" is another such piece of sententious glibness.How can anyone say it without shuddering at their own ridiculousness ? It being a phrase confined, it would seem, to exactly those situations (e.g. child abuse) where lessons have clearly not been learned.

dana said...

If by deserve, one means, "what is needed to be safe, healthy, and productive, or able to contribute to the greater good," I'm ok with it. I think the tension lies in that some believe deserve goes so far beyond that, and for many, what they need is almost impossible to obtain.

Cute rat, Gwil!

Gwil W said...

Dana it's time I came clean, cute or not I'm a rat. English teech gave me 100 lines (he'd tried 20, 40, 50): "God gave me one mouth to speak with, two eyes to see with, two ears to hear with, and only one mouth to speak with, therefore I should see and hear twice as much as I should speak." You see, I had a system where I sellotaped 6 pencils together and laid out paper so I could write 6 lines in one go. Yes, I'm a rat. But cute.

Come and visit my bar in east Berlin.

dana said...

"neon thick" Yum

Must be a rat bar! Can only attend if they're cute rats ;)