Last week I sat in the Memphis airport and waited to board a United Airlines flight. My dog was on my lap. My dog is a 10-pound, 10-year-old, double dapple miniature dachshund named Maui. Most people love Maui. She is small and cute and charming. When Maui travels with me she spends the plane ride in a soft carrier underneath the seat, but I usually keep her on my lap until we board.
My flight took place just about a week after Dr. David Dao was forcibly dragged from a United flight. The images from that incident were still being replayed on the news including the news being shown on the monitors at the airport. At my gate passengers were stacked up for three flights leaving in quick succession. The first flight was late. It was standing room only for a while. The gate attendants were harried and insisting that everyone gate check any bag larger than a small backpack. Plenty of people were annoyed by this. One woman nodded at me and my dog satchel and said, “I guess they won’t make you check that.” I explained that I would be taking up no overhead bin space as my dog would be traveling under the seat in front of me and that I’d paid good money for her to do so – three times as much as a piece of checked luggage. The woman laughed and said, “That’s not fair!” I said I agreed, but that I didn’t make the rules. She then proceeded to baby talk my dog in a way that made all of us mildly uncomfortable.
After the first flight boarded, we had more room at the gate. People settled in to available chairs to wait. It was still tight quarters, but most people found a spot to sit. There were no empty seats. No one had the luxury of a buffer zone. Apparently one passenger had not made it on the departing flight. The gate attendant called his name three times, then three times more. She announced that it was the final call and called his name again. And again. And again. The woman next to me said, “I can’t believe they are giving him so many chances.” I said, “Well, I expect they feel some pressure to keep passengers happy right now.” A woman sitting across from us leaned in and said: “That man deserved what he got. He broke the rules.” Naturally we knew what she was talking about.
“Do you work for the airline?” I asked.
“I just believe in following the rules!” The way she said it made me think she’d pegged me as a rule breaker. And I confess it is technically against the rules to sit with my dog on my lap rather than to zip her up in her carrier at the gate. Still, it seems cruel to lock a living creature into a cage until it is necessary. If anyone had asked me to confine her, I would have done so. If she’d been restless or barking, I would have zipped her in. But she was sitting quietly on my lap and bothering no one. She’d already won the affections of a senior citizen and a toddler. I didn’t feel guilty for breaking that rule.
Some rules are good and they keep things safe and orderly. But, let’s face it, some rules are arbitrary and benefit no one but the rule makers. I said something about how the rule seemed to have been misinterpreted and misapplied in the situation that led to a man being violently dragged off a plane. Another woman chimed in to say: “No matter what, he didn’t deserve that. He was bleeding.”
The woman who was on the side of the airline said they removed people all the time for being drunk and disorderly or belligerent. “But he wasn’t,” I said. “He wasn’t any of those things.” At that point my flight began boarding. I popped Maui into her bag and told the trio of women to have a nice day.
Perhaps the conversation continued or perhaps the women went back to reading or tapping on their phones. I don’t know. That conversation stuck with me, though. It was hard for me to understand how someone could see the video of Dr. Dao being dragged down the aisle of that flight—face bloody, glasses askew, shirt riding up over his belly—and decide that the airline needed sympathy. By that point, even the airline executives had conceded they were in the wrong. They announced plans to reimburse all the passengers and said they would change their policy for flight crew bookings going forward. Why was this particular woman so bent on defending the airline?
I don’t know and I can’t know, but I’ve imagined a hundred scenarios. Maybe her child never won a game of Simon Says and it shattered his confidence. Maybe she was kicked out of her sorority in college because she was spotted smoking while standing. (This is an actual thing that might happen in the south.) Maybe her husband was an unapologetic jaywalker who got hit by a bus. Or maybe she was just raised to follow the rules. All the rules.
The problem with rules is that anyone can make them and if you follow them blindly, you’ll find yourself in a bad way. Everyone knows that the first rule of any predator is silence. A person bent on doing harm to a child will instruct the child to “tell no one.” A child determined to follow rules will be easy pickings for such a person. For years our nation’s business owners tried to enforce a rule that prohibited employees from discussing salaries. This resulted in an unequal and unfair pay scale that punished women. The consequences of that rule, though now explicitly illegal, persists to this day. And it seems to me that many bad rules rely on keeping people quiet. When United staff asked Dr. Dao to give up his seat, they expected him to do so without complaint or even much discussion. Instead, he spoke up. He said no.
Like many of you, I am now watching The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. It’s the television series based on Margaret Atwood’s wonderfully chilling book of the same name. I read the book again recently in anticipation of the series. One of the most effective strategies used against the women in The Handmaid’s Tale is the rule of silence. The handmaids can speak, but not freely. They whisper from beneath their wings while keeping their gaze on the ground. They have no right to refuse the role thrust upon them by those in power. Because spies might be anywhere, they don’t trust one another. When a group of people aren’t allowed to speak, they cannot organize and advocate for themselves. And that is the point. A person without a voice is a person without power. That is why state legislatures want to put limits on the right to protest and assemble. It’s not about safety; it’s about silence. It’s why companies like United want to run their businesses like a strict parent whose only justification for any demand is “because I said so.”
I am glad to live in a society where we are free to speak up and disagree with the people in power. It’s important to strike back against any infringement of those rights. The Handmaid’s Tale feels urgent right now because there are so many people looking for new ways to silence the dissenters. I worry about people like the woman in Memphis. People like that will hand over their freedoms until they are no longer free. As for me, I’ll continue to break the small and silly rules because it’s good practice for those times when we need to strike back against the oppressive and consequential rules. The people in power—no matter who they are—should never be allowed to feel all-powerful.
To quote a handmaid: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.