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United 3411 and the Flight from Reason

by David French

When people decide they have rights or authority on their side, they too often forget about the Golden Rule.

All too many people govern themselves and others in the following manner: Once they determine that they have rights or authority in any given context, they are relieved from any greater moral responsibility. They can act imperiously. They can be outraged. They can be unreasonable. After all, the law or justice or morality is on their side.

We see this phenomenon all the time in our daily lives. It’s in the clerk at the DMV who barks at you when you stand in the wrong line, the parent at your kid’s school who tears into a teacher the instant they perceive that their child has been wronged, or the supervisor at work who just can’t get over the fact that you didn’t put the cover sheets on your TPS reports. Oh, and it’s basically every single person involved in the entire fracas on United Flight 3411.

For those who’ve been hiking the Appalachian Trail or trekking through Antarctica during these last 24 hours and don’t know what happened on United Airlines, here’s the basic summary. United oversold a flight and needed four volunteers to make room for United employees who needed to be on the flight. When there were no volunteers — even when United allegedly offered an $800 travel voucher — the airline randomly selected four passengers for removal. Most got off the plane without incident. One refused. Then, this happened:

What followed was one of the most epic corporate public-relations disasters in recent memory. Rather than simply apologizing profusely, United went ahead and coined perhaps the most Orwellian term in the history of corporate doublespeak. See it for yourself:

United CEO response to United Express Flight 3411. pic.twitter.com/rF5gNIvVd0

— United (@united) April 10, 2017

Twitter, needless to say, had a field day with the term “re-accommodate” — especially when it emerged that PRWeek had named Munoz “communicator of the year” just last month. By late last night, Jimmy Kimmel had already created a new ad and slogan for United.

All told, the airline’s failure to sell one of its passengers a travel voucher led to a cascading series of failures that have ultimately cost it tens of millions of dollars in negative publicity, and that number is rising every minute.

Can we back up for a minute, however, and talk about how everyone involved abused either his legal or moral authority? How each relevant person apparently decided that whatever authority they had was to be exercised in the most unreasonable fashion possible?

First, United certainly had the contractual power to remove the passengers from the plane, but it was unreasonable to exercise that power after raising the asking price to only $800.

Second, security officials had the legal authority to use at least some degree of force to move the passenger (after all, a person can’t defeat the law merely by squatting in place), but they used so much force that they injured a man who wasn’t a physical threat to the officers or any other person on the plane.

Only Twitter thrives in a culture of pettiness, unreason, and malice. Our nation surely does not.

Third, when the passenger was treated unfairly by the airline, he certainly achieved that coveted state in American culture — victim status — but that didn’t relieve him of his own responsibility to act reasonably. He had no legal right to stay in the seat. He should have gotten up. When the officers laid hands on him, he should have moved. He shouldn’t have started screaming like a maniac. All of those things were unreasonable.

Finally, we’ve defined expectations so far down that I can almost see how a corporate PR flack would believe that he could get away with some artful wordsmithing rather than a simple, sincere apology. Munoz’s sin wasn’t the spin — everyone wrongly expects that, and our low expectations only empower more spin — his sin was that he was comically inept.

And so here we are, a series of events that seems to compress our loss of manners, kindness, and honesty into a single viral story. Imagine if just one — just one — of the individuals in this entire chain of affairs had stopped obsessing over their rights and power and instead had asked themselves, “If I was in their shoes, how would I like to be treated?”

You’d offer more money for volunteers or give the doctor an opportunity to explain to other passengers why he needed to be back home (so that someone else may have been moved to offer their seat). Your methods to remove an obviously angry and distressed passenger would have been more respectful. Or, if you were the passenger, you’d do like the other bumped passengers did and remove yourself from a seat you had no legal right to occupy. Finally, if you were the CEO of United, you’d simply say, “We’re sorry. We’ll make this right.”

I’m reminded of a popular quote of unknown provenance, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.” Or perhaps we can boil it down to two words: “Be reasonable.” In an era of entitlement, reason is kind. Really, it’s just implied from the Golden Rule. “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.” It’s an effective rule of human behavior, one with a pedigree several millennia old. United should try it. The screaming doctor should try it. We should try it. Only Twitter thrives in a culture of pettiness, unreason, and malice. Our nation surely does not.

— David French is a staff writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.