As you’ve surely* seen by now, the big story of the day has to do with viral videos of some confusing group of United Airlines security and/or cops—it doesn’t matter, they’re all The Man—violently dragging a ticketed passenger out of his seat and off an overbooked Sunday flight. A computer had randomly selected the passenger for removal, to make his seat available for United personnel who had been ordered to travel from Chicago to Louisville, and he refused. If you have not watched any of the videos yet, exercise caution: They are upsetting.
Of all that is awful about this, though, at the moment I’m most dismayed by the sentiment expressed by two United staffers who spoke to the writer Yashar Ali:
No one should expect a huge corporation like United Airlines to have a better or more humane answer than “Actually beat the fuck out of our customer and throw him off our plane” to the question of what can be done when the airline overbooks a flight, botches its own boarding procedures, and winds up in a situation like this. Like any other corporation, its precise reason for existing is to interpose cold, absolute machine reasoning in between the humans who created it and the humans whose money and/or labor the former want; if it had humane or conciliatory answers—ones responsive to or even cognizant of any prerogative short of maximizing its own moneymaking efficiency—to questions like “What should United Airlines do when it fucks up?” it would be a malfunctioning corporation.
But those were actual human beings speaking to Ali, not, like, the corporation’s animating logic rendered as two CGI beings on a screen (as far as we know), and yet they were evidently unable even to conceive of courses of action that might find an agreeable middle ground in the conflict between a corporation’s policies and a human being. These were actual people, in all their mysterious and profound complexity, their unmatched imaginative capacity, circumscribed entirely by the policies of the machine—in this case, the United Airlines computer that unthinkingly selected that man for ejection from the flight.
Put the United personnel in a rental car or shuttle bus for the relatively short road trip from Chicago to Louisville to avoid displacing people who’d booked their tickets and been allowed to board the flight? Offer the passenger however much money would get him to leave the flight voluntarily? Find somebody else on the flight who might be willing to give up their seat if that passenger would not leave at any price? Literally any course of action that might force a corporate behemoth, and not the sucker who’d done nothing more than expect a service in exchange for his money, to eat a little bit of shit? No. Not possible. The passenger had to be removed. The error in the workflow had to be snuffed out, the algorithm restored to its familiar course, there and then, in the person of that guy, at that exact moment, before it propagated further delays and inefficiencies at the next node.
A while back, we did a blog post here at Deadspin about the efforts of Washington’s NFL team to extract, by punitive legal force, $40,000 worth of severance pay—the copper dust left behind by some pennies, to the franchise—it accidentally had given to a former player. What caught me by surprise (you can find a log of my growing bafflement and dismay in the discussion beneath that old post) was the number of readers who took to the comments to express some version of what those two United staffers said to Yashar Ali: Hey, that guy had something that the powerful corporation gave him and then wanted back; therefore, whatever it does to get back what it mistakenly gave him is what it should do. These were actual living humans—I keep coming back to this—not only adopting but insisting upon the priority of a monstrous legal construct designed for the express purpose of annihilating all concerns but its own profit.
I feel like I am not doing a great job of capturing, in words, the dread that this produces in me. Across the room, one of my dogs is licking its asshole with intense fervor; it is making sounds like the stirring of a pot of macaroni and cheese. Also, large bees are thumping loudly off the glass of the window with arrhythmic regularity. Both of these are very distracting; I am having a hard time doing the thing that makes me money. If I were a corporation, the spectrum of possible responses to these distractions would include killing my dog and encasing my home in soundproofed concrete; that spectrum would be ordered by the degree to which each option maximized my blogging efficiency and by nothing else; what mediated the preferability of these extreme responses would not be concerns that they were cruel or might diminish the simple human pleasure of having nice, big windows to look through on a sunny day. Alas, I am a human—I cannot be a corporation, and a corporation cannot be me—so the dog gets to live. For now.
But the point is: You are not the corporation. You are the human. It is okay for the corporation to lose a small portion of what it has in terrifying overabundance (money, time, efficiency) in order to preserve what a human has that cannot ever be replaced (dignity, humanity, conscience, life). It is okay for you to prioritize your affinity with your fellow humans over your subservience to the corporation, and to imagine and broker outcomes based on this ordering of things. It is okay for the corporation to lose. It will return to its work of churning the living world into dead sand presently.
*Classic Airplane reference!