Wednesday, February 17, 2010
First off, Kevin Smith was thrown off a Southwest Airlines flight because he looked too fat, emphasis on "looked" because he flew on that same airline later in the day without losing any weight. This frightens me because the airline has done this before and it wasn’t any more justified then than it was this time; some ignorant staffer just made a gut decision that a paying customer didn’t safely fit in one seat without actually confirming said suspicion. Any situation where people are being denied service because they look fat is of obvious concern for me, even when the discriminators are operating a business 5000 miles from my present location.
Given that Kevin Smith is famous, it didn’t take long for the PR people at Southwest to realize that they needed to respond to this mistake. However, they made the curious choice of apologizing for mistreating him while simultaneously asserting their right to do so. That’s like Denny’s refusing to serve a black guy and after they apologize, insisting that "in our defense, you really are black and we’d rather not have your kind in our restaurant."
The other details thus far are irrelevant (talk of safety concerns, standby status, and how many seats were purchased doesn’t matter when the person in question clearly fits in the allotted space) but what nags me are some of the comments on the Southwest Airlines "apology" page. More than a few people are in favor of ejecting passengers who appear obese, with one crazy person even citing the corporation’s right to "free speech."
While the right to refuse service is a logical one, as it protects businesses from legitimately unruly or disruptive customers, should we really accept that people are subject to superficial discrimination like this? Sure, Southwest has the option to remove fat people from their airplanes, but even if you’re not overweight this should be disturbing news. I don’t think an airline should be allowed to decline a passenger based on how they look any more than a hotel or a landlord should.
We’ll get back to that, but let’s get to that second news story that caught my eye: someone made threatening remarks over Xbox LIVE and the police were called. Again, there are commenters jumping to the defense of the angry young man, asserting his right to "free speech" and lamenting Microsoft’s meddling into the privacy of its customers. Even the article initially used the verb "rats out" in its headline before softening its stance.
Never mind the fact that the First Amendment to the Constitution doesn’t apply to private forums, it’s frightening to me that anyone alive today would take a stand against investigating threats of violence. If the 1999 Columbine massacre is too hazy in their memories, perhaps they can recall the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007? Aggressive statements and actions should never be ignored. I don’t know whether this guy was serious or not, but if he’s going to announce his intentions to kill people I want him questioned by the authorities.
How do these two disparate stories connect? In both cases, defenders of the wrongdoers rally behind "free speech" as an excuse for unconscionable behavior. This offends me because the more often people incorrectly cry that their rights are violated, the less impact legitimate complaints have. Call it The Boy Who Cried Free Speech; eventually people stop listening even if you’re telling the truth.
The basic misconception at work in both these situations is that free speech does not equal consequence-free speech. Just because something cannot be outlawed doesn’t mean it cannot go unpunished. I have the right to declare aloud "God hates fags" in San Francisco or proclaim "I hate niggers" in Harlem, but the anger that would follow could not be waved away with the Bill of Rights.
Southwest Airlines may have the right to turn away fatties and this angry Xbox user may have the right to shoot his mouth off, but they both need to face up to their actions when the outraged response arrives. Citing policies or the Constitution is not a defense and I cannot fathom why outside parties would weigh in with such statements.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into this. Any statement on the Internet, no matter how ignorant, is bound to draw at least one friendly response. It just puzzles me to see strangers defend discrimination and potential violence by citing the same lofty source.
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