Steven Slater and Narratives of Conflict

Flight attendant Steven Slater quickly became a minor celebrity after his dramatic exit from a plane at Kennedy International Airport. Following an argument with a passenger, the attendant delivered an angry speech over the plane’s public address system, grabbed a beer, opened the emergency chute, then slid out of the plane and went home.

The New York Times characterizes the incident as “the latest round in what is seen as an increasingly hostile relationship between airlines and passengers” (“Fed-Up Flight Attendant Makes Sliding Exit,” August 9, 2010).

Official narratives of conflict can conceal the true conflict behind an event. Though it’s hard to be sure what happened from sketchy and seemingly contradictory news reports, it’s more likely that the incident was a notable flare-up between people who treat others as human beings, and jerks who don’t.

In the New York Times version, a passenger ignored Slater’s instructions to wait until the plane stopped to retrieve her luggage. She could have addressed his concerns, possibly explaining why she needed her luggage immediately. Instead she ignored Slater and hit him in the head with her luggage as if he was just an obstacle in the way. And she reportedly got offended when an apology was asked for.

Retail and service workers are often not viewed as individuals. They are regarded as machines in place to get the customer what he wants, no matter what the customer’s attitude. Any humanness they exhibit becomes an obstacle in the way of getting what the customer wants.

Everyday dehumanization leads to raging out. Air rage, road rage, and plain old general disgruntlement are often the result of offense at some injustice. Saying “I’m not gonna take it anymore” often means reclaiming some measure of humanity.

Unfortunately, getting angry can create a vicious cycle where innocent people become the focus of anger that they didn’t cause, which in turn motivates them to behave angrily toward others.

But those who cause legitimate rage should be stood up to: the assholes with authority, the ones who tell you to put on a happy face and get back to work, the ones who tell you to refrain from showing any emotion that doesn’t fit the official ambiance. Especially the ones who tell you to unconditionally back down from bullies. Backing down not only gives bullies (those who use some kind of rank to exert power over others) free rein to treat people like dirt, but it will probably mean that your rage will be transferred to target someone lower in the hierarchy — someone who might not deserve it.

With constant submission to petty power trips, occupations that could be adventurous, instructive, or otherwise interesting ways to make a living become processes that reduce the worker to an automaton. Causing a scene and grabbing a drink on your way out the emergency chute might just be a rational way to deal with that kind of nonsense.

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