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The Alleged Social Contract of the Airplane Seat

Happy Belated Valentines Day, beloved readers. Friday was a day of love, flowers, and poetry.  I spent an excessive amount of Friday writing “Roses are red…” poems on Twitter and have written the following Valentine’s Day poem in preparation for today’s discussion.

Roses are red
And so is the beet
God bless Wendi William
For calling out the jackhole punching her seat

In case you missed last week’s shenanigans, Wendi Williams took to Twitter after she reclined her seat and the man child behind her reacted accordingly:

Now, here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter whether you think it’s socially acceptable to recline your seat.  The CEO of Delta thinks that there are some unwritten airplane rules about seat reclining, but admits that it’s reasonable to recline one’s seat. Still, the seat reclining discussion is a distraction from the bigger issue.

This post isn’t about whether it’s ok to recline your seat. It’s about the fact that some people are subject to disproportionate displays of anger and aggression when they violate the space of the privileged.

Consider, just for a moment, the amount of privilege that one must have to even consider reacting to a minor inconvenience with childish violence.  That privilege is walking around in abundance and inflicting itself on the less powerful daily.  This isn’t a rare occurrence caught happenstance. This is the stuff that happens to the less powerful in our country regularly and I have sat by with popcorn this weekend watching the videographer take no shit from nobody.

Her story is completely believable. It doesn’t matter that she’s being assaulted by the guy behind her.  Doesn’t matter that he’s balled up his fist and is hitting her seat. Her report is that the flight attendant scolded her for reclining a seat with a recline button and for capturing video of the aftermath. She was told that she needed to delete the video because the most dangerous threat to privilege is evidence that it exists. The flight attendant offered the assailant a cocktail for his inconvenience, despite what to me should be the easiest case of right and wrong this week. He had a tantrum, balled up his fists, and hit her seat. Seems straightforward.

And, to me, the saddest and most informative replies have been those philosophizing that the event would not have occurred if a large, white man had been in the seat.  To that, let me say…

Arnold says, “No shit.” Obviously.

There is no non-white man who does not already know this to be the God’s honest truth. The non-privileged don’t receive these sorts of responses because they deserve them. They receive them because they are perceived as unable to defend themselves.

What should scare us all is that this is emblematic of the discussion that is bubbling and percolated all over this country right now –  the discussion of whether the assaulted seat occupier deserved the response. Whether the white man, even when others are operating within the boundaries of rule and law. can be so inconvenienced that the cause of his inconvenience deserves whatever violent reaction is directed back.

Our president has normalized this behavior in only three short years. If you feel wronged, regardless of the magnitude of the slight, the reasonable response is revenge and the media offers us “fair and balanced” discussions of whether the victim had it coming.  It’s the opposite of the simple lessons we teach our children.

If reclining closer to another’s personal space is enough to warrant violence what about existing?  This week perennial-piece-of-shit Rush Limbaugh suggested that America is not ready for a gay president because Americans would not want to watch President Buttigieg kiss his husband on a debate stage, overshadowed by the masculinity of our orange overlord. Imagine being so privileged, and feeling so powerful, that you believe that everything in the world should be catered to your comfort.

Democratic presidential contenders are spending an enormous amount of time discussing issues. The Green New Deal, free public college, Medicare for all.  These are all secondary issues to the one that is the most immediate threat to our country’s well-being – reclaiming who we claim to be as a people. Even in the 80s, Republican idol President Reagan paid lip service to being a shining city on a hill.

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind, it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind swept, God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace – a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.

There is no doubt in my mind that the 2020 election is a referendum on who we are as a people. Are we a nation that defends its diversity, or a place for only the powerful? Are we kind and generous or angry and aggressive? Do we lock children in cages, or educate them and teach them that they have unlimited potential?

Wendi William’s video is an ethnography of who we are in danger of becoming. 2020 will teach us whether we still have a democracy worth fighting for.

Isis the Scientist

Professor, physiologist, mother of the iKids, stepmom to the Strange Tots, Strange’s wife, Iowan, bikes, shoes, debt-free zealot, post-stomach. Old crone of a blogger who just never learns. Not even close to affiliated with my employer.

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One Comment

  1. Whether than take sides about the violence of seat punching or the violence of space invasion* we could all be asking why there’s so little space in the damned seats already.

    * Not to be confused with “space invaders”, who also jostle people to their sides.

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