This is somewhat related to my earlier thoughts on the outrage treadmill (check it out – a self-referencing link. A milestone for my blog!). It occurred to me while scrolling Facebook for the joys and outrages of the day. Think Progress, which I usually find a pretty reasonable source, had a breathless headline about a woman being kicked off an airplane for “wearing a pro-choice T-shirt.” As it turns out, the T-shirt displayed the slogan “If I wanted the government in my womb, I’d f**k a senator” (without the asterisks.)
So I guess it’s possible that American Airlines – a company with a pretty progressive record on gay rights and other issues – harbors some deep animosity against the pro-choice cause and has a policy of harassing pro-choice passengers. That would be insane behavior on the part of a troubled airline that has no reason to offend or annoy at least half of its passengers, but I will concede that it’s possible. Or it’s possible that the airline was enforcing its stated dress code that prohibits clothing with offensive language. I think the latter explanation is more than 99 percent likely to be true, while the former explanation is less than 1 percent likely, yet the headline chose to present the drastically less likely version as if it were the only possible motivation for the airline’s action.
It’s perfectly possible to think that American Airlines overreacted or that the policy is overly restrictive or prone to abuse or what have you. Among my Facebook friends I’ve noticed a pretty stark divide between those with young children and those without on the question of whether it’s OK to wear that sort of shirt on a plane with families heading off to Disneyland. As a personal matter I would say that when you’re going to be sealed in a metal box with people of all ages and beliefs, a certain amount of discretion is appropriate.
But leave that question aside for a moment. The more telling thing here is that Think Progress didn’t put this up with the headline “Squares at American Airlines kick woman kicked off flight for having f**k on her T-shirt,” which was (1) at least as true as the other headline and (2) a much more plausible account of the motivations behind the incident. The reason, I suspect, is that nobody would have cared about that headline. Some people are uptight about language, especially around children. No one’s going to get their pitchforks out for that. But “Woman kicked off for pro-choice T-shirt” is a much better draw. Now we have a modern-day Susan B. Anthony being oppressed by the jack-booted misogynists at American Airlines. That will be worth a few clicks.
And that’s the part that bothers me. C.S. Lewis wrote a great passage once about the dangerous pleasures of hatred:
“Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black.”
Human beings are prone to believe the worst about their enemies, even when it’s unlikely, for the same reason that human beings will eat an entire tub of ice cream rather than stopping at one serving. Righteous indignation is pleasurable. But it really can make us devils (or whatever the secular humanist equivalent is) if it’s not tempered by compassion, empathy and a genuine desire to be accurate about other people’s motives and intentions.