On a recent afternoon, I found myself in an airport boarding lounge with a certain swath of humanity. Flying from hub to hub, as I do, there are usually a fair number of nationalities and cultures represented on the passenger manifest. This day was no different. Soldiers in uniform. Women in saris. Middle-aged white men whose button-down shirts strained against their midsections. Middle-aged white women wearing capri pants and colorful t-shirts, sensible haircuts and sensible shoes. Young families. Children and adults with special needs. Buff, sporty guys. College students. Business women and men of varying ethnicities. Young families. Grown men who were calling out to each other from across the room, in recognition. “Yo, let’s crack open a couple of beers on the flight!” And the guy who stood in front of me, so close that it seemed that he had determined, from his perch of 6’5″, that my 5’1″ stature indicated that I required less personal space than he did. Taking in Mr. SpaceHog and the Dude-Brahs yammering on about their beers, I suppressed a chuckle, and shot a quick text to my husband. “In honor of the pending return of “Flight of the Conchords,” to TV, I’m gathering material for my series, ‘Flight of the Douchebags.'” Boom, right there, I had reduced the flying public to one label, one caricature. I watched as we all boarded the plane, and settled ourselves.
Once aboard, people were, in fact, polite, respectful and self-effacing as they interacted with their seat-mates. “You’re stuck with me,” one man joked to another. “I’m in the wrong middle seat,” confided the man sitting next to me. “Maybe I can get away with it.” Then, unable to perpetrate a minor breach of social contract, he moved. A woman in a sari walked past, trailing a lovely perfume after her. A soldier settled into a nearby seat, his posture rigid and perfect, his diction clear and polite as he answered inquiries from his own seat mate. Collectively, at the suggestion of the flight attendant, we applauded the members of the military who were flying with us. Truth be told, she didn’t even get to the end of her sentence—”We have several members of the military on board, so would you join me in a round of applause?”— before the passengers burst into spontaneous applause. At once, we were more than the sum of our parts, we were more than the individual nationalities and ethnicities and agendas and schedules among us—we were a grateful public. I’d been reading horror stories about people having ugly confrontations on planes—from the religious conflicts on El Al flights to Israel, to the personal-space seat-back debacles that had made the news here. There were ethnic slurs that reportedly disrupted another flight. I was, to be honest, a little nervous about the way others might behave on the flight. Nothing untoward materialized. This isn’t always the case, and people, in moments of acute fear in the cultural consciousness, tend to express it more. This flight wasn’t happening in one of these moments. But I remember the way people behaved a little more than a decade ago, when our nation was gripped by the fear of worst-case scenarios. Hell, even now, watching HOMELAND, we’re asking ourselves to question how to manage our fear of “others,” and which of our collective trust issues need to be confronted.
In this TEDx talk, my friend Bassam talks about his experience as an Arab-American, how immigrating from Egypt to America changed his life—and even precipitated changing the way he asked others to address him, so that he was able to make others comfortable with the idea that he’s more like other Americans than not. One piece of this includes what happened as he was boarding a plane in late 2001—and how his presence, his appearance, made the other passengers uncomfortable. He’ll make this point as part of a larger point—just watch—but it reminded me that the flying public, and the public in general, is often battling against greater undercurrents than whether people will feel inclined toward politeness. If we feel threatened by other people, how much of that threat is influenced by the media we consume? How much of it is about perception, rather than the reality of a multi-cultural society of people just trying to make it home in time for dinner with their families, to spend time with their friends, to meet their work deadlines?
I thought about the ways in which my thinking toward my fellow passengers had shifted in the space of a few minutes. In the tension-filled moments during the boarding calls, I needed labels—and humor—to keep my wits about me. As the relief of reaching our assigned seats took hold, there was a sudden solidarity among us—spurred on by the flight attendant’s suggestion that we do something small, but meaningful, together.
As I watched Bassam’s talk, and he urged his audience to “triangulate the truth,” I realized that it’s not only good advice for media consumption, but for our own thought processes. It feels like a smart challenge to listen carefully to the ways in which we assign value to ideas, and what notions in our own minds we need to challenge with a new perspective.
Bassam’s experience and perspective—on lots of topics—are things I am fortunate to hear and learn about over dinners and lazy afternoons that our families spend together in and near our homes in our town. I’d heard a lot of these ideas, in different conversations, before. But hearing it as a cohesive, thought-provoking presentation is a privilege. Watch. Think. React. And tell me what your take-away is in the comments.
I dedicate this talk to –and in honor of– my parents, Toudy & Suma,