You Deserve It: Punishment and Reward in a Patriarchal Society by Ivy Helman

10953174_10152933322533089_8073456879508513260_oA friend recently told me that I deserve a vacation. I brushed it off and replied that I haven’t been working that hard. Ever since, I’ve been troubled by that comment and have been reflecting on why it bothers me so much. Today I am sharing with you why I’m uneasy about the idea of deserving reward.

Most of the time, in Western society, deserving something centers around actions: either done or not done. For example, a firefighter pulling a colleague out of a burning building is a heroic act that many people think deserves recognition. We would be wrong not to honor that act. At the same time, a drunk driver dies in an automobile accident, and most people think the person got what s/he deserved. A non-smoker is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and people struggle with explaining the actions she or he has done to deserve that fate. Whereas when a smoker is diagnosed, people often jump quickly to blaming the victim.

All humans search for explanations for evil and suffering in this world. Often these explanations, by attributing or denying to G-d certain characteristics, account for how G-d would allow this to happen. In theological jargon, we call this theodicy.

If we turn to the Tanakh, we find numerous examples of a circular theodicy of sin, retribution (punishment), contrition and reward or back to sin, punishment, etc.  Just skim through any of the Prophets. This Jewish theology, based on actions, argues that our fate is in our hands, and if something bad happens to us, then we deserved it and vice versa. This has been one of the predominant theodicies of Judaism throughout the ages. That is until the Shoah and, then, the question changed. Instead, Jewish theologians began wondering: what had we done to deserve millions of us murdered throughout Central and Eastern Europe? No longer did the theology of “the punishment fits the crime” work. Despite this, the idea of reward for good behavior and punishment for bad behavior still exists. In fact, it exists in Western society in general and not just in Jewish circles.

I’m sure we can all think of a time of two when we said or we heard said something along the lines of “she didn’t deserve that,” or “he’s getting what’s coming to him.” This is that reward-punishment theodicy. There are many examples of this in society and a good number of them focus on women’s and minorities’ behavior. For example, she wouldn’t have been raped if she hadn’t worn such provocative clothing. He wouldn’t have been shot and killed if he hadn’t run. Perhaps the most poignant one for me was Jerry Falwell’s and Pat Robertson’s explanation blaming feminists, abortionists, pagans, the queer community and others for the 9/11 attack. For many people these are obviously problematic because of the ways in which sexism, racism, classism and homophobia help provide the rational for deserving punishment.

Yet, perhaps not so obvious is another incarnation of this idea in Western society: deserving reward.   Returning to the idea that I deserve a vacation because I’ve been working hard, there are two obvious concerns. First, there is the way deserving reward is rationalized. Second, I think there is a distinction that should be drawn between needing and deserving.

The rationale behind why we deserve reward is often individualistic. An individual’s actions explain why one person 300-dollars-cashgets to do this or have that. However, it’s more complicated than that. When individuals act, they act within a patriarchal context. This context not only interprets their actions based on certain assumptions but also interprets how deserving they are of reward. Just think for a minute about these questions: who is consistently believed to be harder workers; who has to work harder to get ahead; who has the free-time to travel; who goes to work even when sick because rent needs to be paid? In other words, the rationale for rewards often includes aspects of privilege as well as racism, sexism, classism, etc. Patriarchy deems some people more deserving of vacations, good food, better educational opportunities, less polluted land, better hospitals, more promotions, increased safety, luxury items, etc., than others. In addition, it inculcates these individuals to believe they earned these rewards.

This is one part of what bothers me about being told I deserve a vacation. If anything, I think people are lucky to be able to go on a vacation. This luck comes from many of the ways they are privileged. In fact, to me, privilege a form of luck. Some people are lucky to be born with more of it than others. That being said, no one should justify anyone’s  lot in life based solely on individual accomplishments. Rather, there is a combination of privilege, intersecting societal biases and individual actions that give some people more and many people less.

The second part that worries me is the distinction between deserving something and needing it. In order to continue to contribute in productive ways to create a more just world, individuals need down time. Humans also need healthy food, safety, decent shelter, clean, easily-accessible water, breathable air, healthy environments, seasonally appropriate clothes, good healthcare, meaningful work, access to education, etc. These are not luxuries; they are basic human rights. Every person needs them even though not all have them in equal proportion, if they have them at all.

Therefore, I would say there is a marked distinction between deserving and needing something. Clearly, many humans still don’t have access to all that they need in order to flourish. At the same time, some people have more than they require and think they deserve it.

That being said, I think there will be a time when individuals can say they deserve all the good that comes their way. The prerequisite for this is a just, peaceful and humane world in which the needs of the entire planet are fulfilled. Until then, I’m convinced that humanity is not as deserving as it thinks it is.

Author: Ivy Helman

Jewish feminist scholar, activist and professor living in Prague, Czech Republic.

5 thoughts on “You Deserve It: Punishment and Reward in a Patriarchal Society by Ivy Helman”

  1. You made me re-thinking ones more the concept of dignity and the concept of stigma. Deserving or needing.
    I struggled with cicero and all my wish for a world where dignity is free for all.
    Thank you


  2. If I started writing about the negative effects of patriarchal society, it would take pages. If I started writing about the violence and hatred required a couple of thousands of years ago for it to succeed, it would take a book and my life might be in danger. The latter I plan to write and finish within the next couple of years anyway.


  3. I can’t believe that someone as young as yourself has such insight and wisdom!! As a retired educator I have had more time to reflect on the issues facing us all and have gotten very despondent thinking that things will never change for the better. We have an election where I hear people demonstrating very little knowledge of the facts of just about everything political, both here and abroad, who have the most biased positions, almost etched in stone. The idea of “earning success” without acknowledging one’s start in life is just about universally accepted; and propagated, to ensure that it continues. What I would love to hear from you is your views on how anyone can begin to make inroads towards creating fulfillment for all. Again, thank you for your powerful words of wisdom.


  4. Wonderful post, Ivy. I was raised on the idea that I deserved nothing but God’s wrath–born into the world with original sin–and the only thing that would keep me from everlasting damnation was God’s grace by means of all that classic, Protestant theology that came under the rubric of “redemption through substitutionary atonement.” Of course, all this had to do with other-worldly “realities.” Living in this world had much of the flavor you describe with the mentality of those who deserve things and those who don’t. And since control, I believe, is at the core of patriarchy (the soup we all swim in), my “wretched state of original sin” was often given as a reason to forbid me from doing this or that or going here or there. I was never worthy and I never could become worthy because there was no way to become worthy on my own. I think that this sense pervades our society (as you note) and I believe women–especially those without “protection” from “deserving men” are most vulnerable.


  5. I enjoyed reading your post however I choose to look at life in another direction. If life is energy and you send out negativity that is what you will draw back to yourself. The question for you is, Why are you afraid that you don’t deserve something? The world will always have those who have and those who do not. It is in our choices that creates the energy that makes up the world. If you chose not to take a vacation and renew yourself that is your choice but if you become sick and stressed and cannot be a productive person with in your own life then what have you gained. I understand the concept of people thinking they are entitled to things in life but I also understand that life is not fair. maybe I took this in a wrong direction because it seemed to me your friend was concerned enough about you to let you know what they were seeing. To my way of thinking if you are not doing what you are suppose to do in life the universe will in the end put where you are meant to be. Do not become overwhelmed with all that is wrong in life remember the cup is always half full.


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