Just Wrong

I don’t often spend much time commenting on social or political trends here. Mostly because I usually don’t care about enough one way or the other, and I try really hard to be non-combatant in the “culture war.” (I’ve always seen myself as a minority — either as a Muslim, or simply for being Charles Featherstone, and therefore never really expect things to work in my favor anyway.)

But this … this bothers me. Not, however, for reasons you might think:

United Airlines has apologised to a Muslim chaplain who said she was denied an unopened can of soft drink on an affiliated US domestic flight by an attendant who said it could be used as a weapon.

The US airline also said in a statement on Wednesday that the flight attendant had been banned from serving its customers.

United launched an investigation after Tahera Ahmad, Northwestern University associate chaplain, complained about the incident last week in social media posts that went viral.

Bob Birge, a spokesperson for Republic Airways Holdings, which operated the Shuttle America flight on behalf of United, said the airline’s beverage policy did not ban serving unopened cans to passengers.

“While United did not operate the flight, Ms Ahmad was our customer and we apologise to her for what occurred on the flight,” United Airlines said in a statement on Twitter.

“After investigating this matter, United has ensured that the flight attendant, a Shuttle America employee, will no longer serve United customers.”

The airline said all its employees who dealt with customers underwent cultural awareness training at least once a year. It also said Shuttle America employees who worked with customers were trained in cultural sensitivity training, but did not specify how often.

“United does not tolerate behaviour that is discriminatory – or that appears to be discriminatory – against our customers or employees,” the airline said.

What bothers me here is how the hostess’ behavior — and that of the other passengers — is being characterized. It’s not mean, or rude, or nasty. It’s “discriminatory.”

Many years ago, I edited medical reports for a worker’s comp psychiatric clinic in Pomona, California. Now, the focus was on the psychiatric part of any kind of physical injury, but I noticed that people filing these claims frequently reported they were belittled, bullied, and humiliated by co-workers and bosses. And this contributed to whatever injuries they suffered.

What bothered me about this is that it was not enough to say “someone treated me badly.” You had to show that bad treatment injured you, or contributed to your injury in some way. (Such as somatic complaints — inability to sleep at night, depression, so forth.)

The issue wasn’t the bad treatment — the bullying, the belittling, the humiliation, the meanness — itself, but the injury it caused.

In the case of Tahera Ahmad, it should be enough to say the flight attendant was mean and cruel, and that one is entitled to some level of polite and civil service from people you have paid for a good or service. But, apparently, it isn’t. What happened was described — by the airline itself — as discriminatory.

What bothers me here is the implication here is that people can be as mean, as cruel, as brutal as they’d like, but if no injury is caused — if no one is discriminated against — then the behavior doesn’t matter. And that bothers me.

It bother me because I believe meanness and cruelty matter in and of themselves. That they are not behaviors to be fostered or encouraged no matter who you are dealing with. It shouldn’t matter if being mean or cruel hurts someone — there should be some kind of sanction simply because people shouldn’t be mean to each other, or honestly, shouldn’t be allowed to be mean to each other. (I know, I’m an idiot.)

But it also bothers me because, if you can prove no injury takes place, then the behavior can continue. If no discrimination takes place, then the behavior can continue. It suggests that there are people who can be treated badly, and that doesn’t matter, because there are no grounds to protect them.

I do not want to make more of this than it merits, and I’m not claiming somehow that straight white men qua straight white men will soon be the targets of legal bullying and discrimination. That’s foolishness. I also know calls for general civility have rarely included the poor, the brown, and the marginalized — people whose fates have rarely mattered and can be treated as cruelly and badly as allowable. But the language here still bothers me, because more than anything else, the flight attendant was rude and mean. (And stupid to boot.)

And that’s just wrong.

3 thoughts on “Just Wrong

  1. There was a time when ‘politeness’ was supposed to prevent an explicit expression of unkindness, whatever the feelings behind the action [at least to the people one was obliged to be polite to]. Rudeness was a failure of form, not of feeling; which was just as well, since it is impossible for people to control their feelings as well as they can their behavior. There is a line of “Lawrence of Arabia”, where Faisal says to a reporter that Lawrence has a passion for mercy (maybe phrased differently?) but that with himself it [not torturing prisoners] was just good manners. Then he added “I will let you judge which motive is the more reliable.” And then of course Lawrence – the movie character, if not the real man – descends into bloodthirstiness, whereas Faisal’s policies presumably do not change.

    I have had an odd experience of mild “discrimination” or contempt, at least by implication. My father’s father was French-Canadian; his parents immigrated to New Hampshire from Quebec. I have never been to French Canada and I had no contact with my father or any of this family when I was growing up. But with a hard-to-spell last name, I naturally felt some identification with the people and culture, ignorant of it all though I was. I never knew during my childhood that there was such a thing as anti-French-Canadian sentiment. But then in the 80s and 90s, it was revealed to me. First there was an Anglo-Canadian physicist visiting our lab to do an experiment (nuclear physics). He once, in my presence but speaking to someone else, went on a rant against the Canadian French, and drove it home by commenting that only people like that could make such a wretched mess of an originally beautiful language. [In actuality, I think Canadian French preserves earlier forms of French phonology, just as the speech in rural and northern England preserves sounds once heard in London.] A few years later, I sat in on a 2nd year French class at the university, and one of the assigned readings was a story by a French Canadian author. The instructor, who was French, though he had an Armenian name and was, I’m pretty sure, Muslim by religious background, was outspoken in his contempt for the ‘literature’ of French Canada, and what a waste of time it was for us to devote even a little attention to it. I can’t say that either of these experiences really stung, not the way such insults would have to someone who felt genuinely marginalized because of their group identity. But I could begin to see how such feelings could form and grow. [I don’t know exactly why, now, that I bothered to insert this experience into this comment. At least I’m commenting on an older posting, so nobody is likely to read it.]

  2. BTW, I don’t see a date for the postings anywhere (which doesn’t mean they aren’t there). So I can’t tell how old the posting is. Accidental omission in the setup?

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