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.