On being ... more entitled?

By Ingrid Sapona

A comment in a fairly trivial story in the weekend newspaper struck a nerve with me in a way that I’m sure it wasn’t intended to. And of course, that got me thinking about why it got under my skin, so I figured I should write about it.

The news story was about a few bars on a downtown street in a mixed residential/commercial area that were warned by a by-law enforcement officer that they’d be fined if they hang planters on the outside of their patio railings. Seems the bars were basically told to make sure their planters – and patio umbrellas and advertising (sandwich) boards – remain within the confines of their patios. The article made it clear they weren’t charged with a by-law violation – they were just warned.

The article also made it clear that the by-law enforcement officer’s visit was prompted by a complaint the City got about the flowers. The reporter spoke to a few of the bars and a City councillor. One bar manager, who commented that he’s already put out $400 worth of plants for the patio, said they’ve been hanging flowers that way for years and have never had a problem. The manager said the bar complied right away, however, because they felt that failing to do so could negatively impact their liquor licence.

The City councillor’s initial comment was a wisecrack (“A petunia took them down”) but then she said the City could have handled the matter better by working through the local business improvement area, rather than by dispatching a by-law enforcement officer. The councillor also commented that she thought it isn’t something a bar should lose its liquor licence over. (Mind you, there was no report their liquor licences were truly in jeopardy, though the article noted that when a business with a liquor licence violates any City by-law, the liquor commission is notified.)

Another bar manager said the “crackdown” (her term) will hurt business. She went on to complain: “… by draping them inside the fence, we’ve lost space on our patio. Now we have fewer tables, which means less business.”  

Before going on, in the spirit of full disclosure, I feel compelled to say that over the years I’ve occasionally enjoyed a drink or a bite on a couple of the patios mentioned in the article. The flowers and location make them particularly inviting in nice weather. And, to me, the City’s many flower-filled patios – at bars, restaurants and cafes – definitely contribute a lot to Toronto’s charm.

But, I really take offense at the bars complaining about being told they must comply with the by-law in issue. The fact that they’ve gone through the necessary hoops to get a liquor licence and to get permission to have a patio doesn’t mean they have the right to do business however they see fit thereafter. The fact that they’ve already spent money on flowers for the summer, or even the fact that they’ve put planters on the sidewalk side in the past, is simply irrelevant. But more than anything, the complaint that there will be less space on their patios for tables and that fewer tables means less revenue makes me want to scream!

I’m sure many readers simply view this article as a news story about a silly by-law. (Wanna bet the paper was alerted to this story by the bars who clearly feel the by-law is ridiculous?) Or, more cynically, maybe some folks see it as a story implying City money and manpower being wasted by by-law officers enforcing regulations about flowers. I suppose the story could even be written off as a modern-day example of beauty being in the eye of the beholder, given that the article makes it sound like some curmudgeon – a flower hater of some sort – is causing a kerfuffle. (Personally, I think it’s just as likely that the complainant is someone who’s tired of having to navigate around obstacles on the often too-narrow City sidewalks.)

But I actually see this article as relating to a more important issue: the way some people confuse privileges with entitlement. Clearly the bars feel they should be entitled to ignore the by-law because compliance could negatively impact their bottom line. But doesn’t the person who complained about the patio owners violating the by-law have the right to expect the by-law will be enforced? Are the bars more entitled to make money than pedestrians are entitled to unimpeded access to the sidewalk? Indeed, it seems to me one of the main purposes of by-laws is to balance competing senses of entitlement like the ones at play here.

Entitlement is a concept that I’ve struggled with for many years. What makes any of us think that we’re entitled to anything? I honestly don’t know where this attitude comes from, but it seems increasingly common. You don’t have to look too far to find examples of it and articles like this show how a sense of entitlement colours people’s behaviour and sense of justice.

© 2013 Ingrid Sapona


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