The culture war over taste and public expression has flared up regarding
a T-shirt that got a wearer kicked off of an American Airlines flight.
Stories like this can seem trivial when there's a lot of real death and destruction to worry about.
But over and over, we're seeing, not considered thoughtfully-formulated policy as to what a business or institution will allow on its property, but a real sense of entitlement by The Offended to make policy on the spot.
To demand that their taste be enforced on customers :
- without advance notice to those customers;
- without oversight by any policymaking body for the firm;
- without planning or consensus;
- and without consistency in implementation or enforcement.
There is a very very gray area in which the question of what people should do, and what they have the right to do, gets tangled and difficult to sort out. If you click the link above, you'll see that the offensive word has been partially blocked out in the news story.
Superficially, this can seem laughably stupid. I mean, is the exact word in any doubt whatsoever? What difference does it make to put that little black box over the middle letters?
Which leads to the question of....why use the word? The word "screw" or the euphemism "sleep with" would convey the political message perfectly well. Heck, context means that the word could be blacked out on the shirt itself and the wearer's opinion, and exact word used, would still be abundantly clear.
The black box does make a difference, and here's why: it doesn't seek to prevent us from reading the word or knowing what it said, but has a different purpose; to affirm the reader/listener's disapproval. Those who find the term offensive can feel that their standards of civility are considered reasonable and are still society's Default Setting.
Whether it was tasteful or necessary isn't the issue. They were wrong to throw her off the flight.
Let's take the most stringent view of rights, just for the sake of argument, and let's say that AA had every right to make clothing rules.
What they do NOT have the right to do is: to let a crew member make up a policy and enforce it at the gate without notice to this or to any passenger. The airline's policy on this matter, included in this article, is not a specific interdiction of known words and phrases, but a blanket assertion of the right to NOT spell out what is and isn't acceptable. And to make any expression of another passenger's distaste override the offending passenger's rights.
The shirt made a political statement, and it made that statement with an anger that is neither small nor trivial. According to the airline, the F-word -- not the political viewpoint -- was the issue.
Maybe it really was apolitical. But loathing for the political point of view could be shrouded in the claim of obscenity. It's happened before.
Airline crew encounter all kinds of absolutely nasty and grotesque passenger behavior that leaves this in the dust. Now, me, I'd be fine with any passenger who showed no sign of doing other than turning off her electronic devices for take-off, fastening her seatbelt, and quietly sitting with her drink, her snack mix and her e-reader. Nobody on the first leg of her trip seemed to consider disciplining her for the word to be their personal crusade.
The shirt may be obnoxious in some eyes, but it was emphatically not a use of the word for a trivial reason. The escalation in women's anger comes in response to an escalating
ultra-right push on every aspect of a woman's life, way beyond
terminating pregnancies. It is very well stated here.
My "own" (please, let me out) state of SC recently tried to forbid state employees to have, in their health coverage, a provision for abortion, even in clear and established cases of rape.
It failed by one vote. Not that I'm not relieved, and not that I didn't know how extreme are many peoples' stands on abortion, but the thought of how close it was - how many lawmakers support forcing a woman who has been raped to bear a child from it leaves me gobsmacked. There are positions of integrity on both sides of the abortion issue, but this mentality can't be considered anything but an assault against women.
The strange opposition to contraception in health plans ..... to money for life-saving gynecological care at Planned Parenthood, which uses NONE of it for abortion .... the idea that if the anti-abortion movement cannot win the hearts and minds of the people of this democracy, they have the absolute right to make the process lengthy and expensive to a punitive and contorted degree...
..... and especially that they have the right to insult and shame women using that process, but then have the "right" not to see a bad word on a T-shirt....
Please understand the twisted thinking of this. Go ahead. Hate abortion. Hate irresponsible behavior.
But also hate the mentality that calls for opposing views to be suppressed. This is one of those cases. The shirt did not say "[....] Personal Name" or even "[....] Big Corporation Everybody Hates" much less "[....]ing is Fun". It expressed political rage. The shirt did not speak for the airline, the crew, or anyone but the
wearer, and could never be construed as being the statement of anyone
Obviously, I think the rage is justified and that no toned-down term would convey the feeling of violation that many women in this society are experiencing right now. So yeah, to tone it down would indeed be suppression of the person's free expression. Telling her she can say it, but must do it nicer, is telling her she can't really say it at all. There's nothing Nice about the fact that a frightening number of people would grant liberty, authority over one's own body, and self-determination to men and fetuses, but not to women.
If American Airlines or any other business that serves the public wants to make regulations that have absolutely ZERO to do with passenger safety, terrorism, etc., then they need to spell them out at corporate level so that any passenger can choose to comply, or choose to protest, or choose to fly on another line.
The airline might get more business for doing it, or they might lose business. To avoid spelling out what is disallowed in an above-board, full-disclosure way is cowardly, unethical, and possibly illegal.
If I were an airline official, and that crew member had come to me with some personal demand that a customer's shirt message not offend him or her, I would tell said crew member that we appreciate good employees, and it's up to you, but if you expect your personal taste to determine who may fly, you might want to work somewhere else. Unemployment is rampant out there and I would be very happy to pass your job on to someone who does not demand that this company serve only customers of whom s/he feels entitled to issue on-the-spot approvals -- or disapprovals.
And I guess you'll all have to take my word for it, that I would apply this to all points of view. If you want this kind of policy, then do the procedure for policymaking. Convince the company to put some thought into a policy for passenger attire and behavior that ticket-buyers will be clearly informed of in advance, and that will be applied consistently, and then enforcing it is my job.
Their claim that it's "virtually impossible to write down or precisely delineate every situation that may, or may not, create an issue" is bull. The list of common obscenities, profanities, and depictions of crass nudity would be quite easy to put together. They have a right to ban specifics, but this vague "policy" to ban just any old thing that someone does not like goes way too far.
Try this: The exact same shirt, with a black box masking the F-word could still offend some other passenger, who would find it a strident and obviously obscene pro-choice statement. The American Airlines policy would allow them to kick off the wearer, even under those circumstances.
If any of my readers want a similar T-shirt, they can buy one at this site. But be forewarned. The F-word is not blacked out here. Oh, and for a little moment of rude comic relief -- if you're thinking of choosing the white shirt, you might want to preview it before ordering.