Okay, one more #bump-a-lago post today. I know this issue has already been done to death by everyone from points and miles bloggers to CNN to people in my Facebook feed who want Oscar Munoz’s head on a stick. I did want to say a little about the round of victim-blaming that came out today, though.
Yesterday already started to get a little victim-blamey, with some people yelling that any idiot knows you have to obey the crew no matter what, and this guy deserved what he got for being so stupid. That went into overdrive today, though, when it came out that the victim in this situation has a checkered past that includes illegal procurement of drugs and gay extramarital affairs… so pretty much as salacious as the tabloid media could ever ask for. The media reported this like it was relevant – because apparently being non-biased includes airing the “Well, he was a piece of shit who deserved it” viewpoint.
To humanity’s defense, most of the responses to these stories were critical of the media’s airing of Dr. Dao’s past. However, there was a definite undercurrent of “he got what he deserved” in the news coverage, even as the pressure on United and Munoz ramped up. What’s interesting is how the victim’s identity played a part in both the inflation of the scandal and then the pushback against it (in defense of United). All day yesterday, it was made clear that he was a DOCTOR. United beat the shit out of a DOCTOR who just wanted to see his patients. A DOCTOR was dragged off the flight. It’s an honorable profession, which makes what United did that much more egregious – if he had been a garbage man, people may not have cared so much.
Switching gears, today he went from being a DOCTOR to just being a guy, because the details of his past canceled out the honorability of his profession. Of course, it shouldn’t matter if he was a doctor who had just saved an entire orphanage or a lowlife criminal, or anything else. But we can’t ignore how the identity of the victim shapes the narrative, either as a way to further demonize United, or to discount his value as a human as a way of excusing what United did.
Looking deeper into it, however, it’s pretty clear that there’s a false equivalence between propping him up as a doctor and tearing him down as a deviant. You can see that in how gleeful and malicious the coverage “breaking” news of his past was. The fact that he had been held up as a virtuous doctor the day before only intensified this. And here’s why: deep down, it’s terrifying that an upstanding member of the community could be randomly targeted, brutalized, and left literally begging for death by a faceless security apparatus. If we can trick ourselves into believing he deserved it, then the security state isn’t as terrifying, because it is calibrated according to our normal notions of justice, good, and evil.
I’m going to get personal for a second: I have first-hand experience with this. Around fifteen years ago, I almost died in a tragic accident that changed the course of my life. Thirteen people died and forty-seven were injured when a 3-story balcony in Chicago collapsed without warning. I was buried in debris and was being crushed under all the weight, and I heard people suffocating to death beneath me. I was finally pulled out and only had a couple broken ribs and a bunch of abrasions and cuts – many others were hurt much worse. The PTSD from it still affects me from time to time, and it’s also why I have issues with a fear of flying. In the immediate aftermath, I was trying to process what happened, and all the news coverage included interviews with average joes in Chicago whose basic sentiment was, “yeah it sucks, but what did they expect?” Facts became twisted to fit a narrative that the victims got what they deserved – people started talking about the party-goers jumping up and down, or overloading the balcony with kegs (neither of which were true). The sentiment on the internet turned decidedly against the people who were injured and/or dead – if you’re that stupid that you’d go onto a crowded porch, you deserve to die. Period.
Never mind the fact that the porch was built with substandard materials and construction techniques, or that the city of Chicago tried to cover up the fact that it had never been properly inspected. People in Chicago (many of whom lived in apartments with similar porches) didn’t want to believe that they could suddenly die one night for no reason, so they decided that the victims died because they were stupid, not because they were just very unlucky. Of course, I took the opposite lesson from it, which is that everyone is fucked all of the time, and it’s just a question of how and when you find that out for sure.
People’s anxiety about flying is manifested through our collective interest in plane horror stories. I don’t mean people with a traditional fear of flying – this is a more generalized anxiety about powerlessness. There’s a reason people love to hate on airlines so much, and why stories about airlines’ bad behavior get more traction than similar stories in other industries. There’s a reason everyone has a horror story about the TSA, or a turbulent flight, or a power-tripping flight attendant. Dislike of flying occupies an exalted space in our collective consciousness, which is how it has become the conventional wisdom seats have gotten narrower and leg room has decreased every year steadily since 1985. But flying isn’t just bad because it’s cramped, or because people are mean. No one talks about riding Greyhound buses like they talk about flying. And people love to talk about subway horror stories, but it’s not in the same tone as those about planes – there’s an affection for it that doesn’t extend to planes. My theory is that the powerlessness that starts at the TSA checkpoint and continues through to baggage claim eats away at people, and that feeling is worse than any of the more rote indignities of flying, like cramped seats and bad food.
As I mentioned yesterday, the #bump-a-lago incident illustrates in very real terms what happens when a person simply refuses to obey the crew, and that such a thing could happen to a person picked at random by a computer is simply intolerable for many people. If there’s an anxiety around powerlessness, it’s an anxiety of this exact scenario coming to pass. Short of a plane crashing mid-flight, this is literally what people fear most about flying, even if that fear stays at a low-level hum most of the time. Ergo the desire to cut the victim down, starting with “what did he expect” and picking up speed with “well he was a deviant anyway.” Anything to avoid feeling sympathy for him and coming to terms with the fact that we’re a computer glitch away from an armrest to the face any time we set foot on a plane.
So what’s the takeaway here? Hopefully some positive change can come from it. It would be great if United got rid of the caps on the compensation amounts for bumping passengers; it would be better if United issued new corporate guidelines about when it is and isn’t appropriate to engage airport security. And finally, it would be fantastic if airport security forces engaged in a top-down reform effort designed to make violence a last resort rather than a knee-jerk reaction. That last one is probably a bridge too far, but at least the staying power of this incident might make things even marginally better. Tabloid journalists are still going to feed on the more salacious/outrageous aspects of this story, but as bloggers, twitterers, facebookers, and passengers, it’s up to us to keep the story centered on the basic facts rather than letting it get filed away as the just desserts of a known criminal.