Getting Out of the Way
Airplanes, like waiting rooms and elevators, are petri dishes of humanity. Strangers randomly grouped together interact as unfamiliar organisms, each confronted by the extreme proximity of others, attempting to maintain fragile social homeostasis. Either because we are collectively enduring a normalized horror, or simply because the duration of our encounter is longer, flying seems to demand the most of this unconscious peer bonding, compelling strangers to behave affably, or at least to curiously tolerate each other.
On a flight home to Nashville from New York at the end of a tour, I settle into my seat and greet the passenger next to me, an older woman who is fidgeting anxiously. She tells me she is afraid of flying, I confess the same, and we agree that however routine or scientifically sound, air travel is a terrifying experience.
Then, wincing in suspicion, she says, “And I saw the pilot is a woman. I don’t know how I feel about that.”
This is a gag, I think: somewhere there is a hidden audience amused at my dismay.
You are a woman, my brain screams, how on earth could you be applying a sexist bias to another woman.
I contend casually that perhaps our pilot is even more qualified, considering she undoubtedly had to overcome the gender bias of a male-dominated field by compensating with superior skill. (The recent engine explosion on a Southwest flight, which a female pilot guided unflappably to an emergency landing, hadn’t occurred yet.)
The woman folds her crochet kit, nods solemnly and sighs, “Well, that’s true,” adding after a pause, “I should know, I was in the army.”
You’re kidding me. Indignation is overtaken by morbid fascination. Her comment reveals an extraordinary capacity for cognitive dissonance. Perhaps selfishly, I inquire more, probing for insight into this bizarrely contradictory information. She pulls out her phone and shows me weathered pictures of her wearing a forest green uniform, surrounded by a crew of all men. I’m baffled.
I ask what she does now, and she tells me she works in hospital administration, then she complains vaguely about health-care policy, how increasingly difficult it is to give patients good care with fewer resources. Curiously, our gripes with health care are similar. I tell her my mother is a physical therapist who works with Medicaid and Medicare recipients. Like her, this woman is overworked and underfunded by a system that neglects her as much as it does the very people she’s trying to help. I obliquely criticize the System, that indistinct, mysterious entity, safe object of blame and shared enemy of pretty much everyone. Though it is probably no mystery what I personally mean by the System, my tactical obscurity is an acceptable peace offering.
“I can’t argue with you there. It’s all these damn corrupt politicians,” she concedes. Without making me the direct object of her attack, she adds, “you know, younger people make a lot of noise, but they don’t know what they are talking about.” She continues, denigrating the demonstrations in Ferguson as disruptive, and chastises protesters, progressives, liberals. This woman, if at least a little disillusioned with the political machine, still condemns radical dissent as merely the insubordination of petulant kids who don’t know how good they have it. “They don’t want to admit,” she scalds, “that this outsider Trump might actually have some good ideas.”
A mushroom cloud of righteous anger rises in my chest. I manage a thoughtful “Hmmm” that sounds like a kettle boiling over. She is talking about me, I think.
It has only been a few weeks since the refugee ban debacle of January, 2017, and I am full of fresh outrage and bewilderment. The 2016 election seems to have snapped a rubber band of civility; agitated moderates on both sides of the political spectrum have been catalyzed into partisan action, creating an ultimatum of association. I feel obligated to boldly confront manifestations of injustice wherever they appear, yes, even on an airplane, lest my silence become implicit acceptance and make me an unwitting agent of oppression.
I’m looking for an entry to launch into a multipoint ethico-political dissertation with a complete stranger when she interjects, “I will agree with them on one thing: police are bastards. I hate the police.”
My eyebrows betray me. I’m no longer able to courteously veil my astonishment at hearing a fifty-year-old woman tell me “A.C.A.B.”
Stunned, I listen as she elaborates, criticizes the justice system that failed to protect her and her children from domestic violence, rails about her son being arrested for controlled-substance-related charges without a proper warrant, fumes about how she believes it was an unnecessarily forceful arrest, spitting as she draws a memory of his face pressed into the ground on her front lawn. She laments the stigma of addiction, the absence of accessible rehabilitative resources.
She moves beyond rhetoric into the realm of visible pain, and reluctantly, I feel sympathy churning beneath my disapproval. No longer speaking to me, she argues with herself on behalf of the demonstrators.
“You know, I get it. It’s not fair. None of it’s fair,” she says, more exhausted than bitter. She wonders aloud how anyone could contain or express that rage.
We respond to pain best when we feel ours has been validated, and tend to withhold sympathy if we feel our own plight neglected or diminished. It is a universal self-centeredness—the need to say “I have hurt, too” and be heard before we can see another’s hurt.
As it turns out, this woman didn’t need me to explain politics to her with a chart and graph. Nobly enraged on behalf of oppressed people everywhere (many whose pain I can never fully understand), I was ready to villainize a person whose pain I also do not understand. This woman needed to feel that her pain, even if dangerously warped into anger, was witnessed before she could arrive at a position of empathy instead of defensiveness. And truthfully, I do, too. Being aware of others’ oppression might motivate me to use my social privilege to advocate for those with less privilege, but disregard my individual suffering, and I can bet I’ll be offended.
I can argue that I refuse to make concessions to those subtle, poisonous ideologies which perpetuate structural inequality, but my error is denying my blindness to the ways I am complicit with that inequality. I approached this interaction as social evangelist, certain that I was the virtuous messenger bestowing some knowledge about race, class, and discrimination on a lost soul. But entering this conversation openly is not solely a benevolent act for the other person’s benefit. If I allow it, engaging someone else’s prejudice is a mirror into my own myopic lens of privilege.
Two and a half hours later, we sat side by side, white-knuckled, fingernails digging into our armrests, as the plane skidded onto a Nashville airport runway. We exchanged the cordial goodbyes common to strangers sharing enclosed spaces, then the woman paused, grinned maternally, and told me that she bet my mother was proud of me. I felt a peculiar uneasiness, wondering if this was condescension, or if she believed we agreed on more than I believed we did. I was reluctant to take her compliment, fearing I had been cowardly and omitted too much of my personal convictions in an attempt to avoid conflict rather than be more explicit. Pride made me feel treasonous for accepting her positive regard, cynicism prevented me from believing that it could be genuine. After all, there had been no miraculous conversion, no dramatic epiphany that reversed this woman’s sociopolitical ideology. We nodded frankly at each other, with an honest awareness of our fundamental difference, and in my discomfort I saw the arrogance that was impeding me from seeing the incremental softening that was taking place. I recognized how little her comment probably had to do with me, my character, or my politics.
It is easy to dismiss a person as ignorant; it is hard to recognize the ways in which I am still ignorant. My ego retaliates violently against this possibility because it threatens my self-image as a Good Person, the moral superiority that enables me to pity those with whom I disagree from the relative safety of higher ground. Pity, often mistaken for sympathy or compassion, is actually something very different that handicaps our empathy. Pity acknowledges another’s sorry predicament but does not understand or identify, and this makes it counterproductive. Being incapable of identifying with another person’s flaws shows that I lack the humility to see the same flaws in myself.
Truly understanding others is a loftier goal than we realize. Saying we simply need to understand each other summons trite aphorisms advising us to live and let live, encouraging us to get along. Those familiar axioms are wholesome, and not entirely false, but ultimately unproductive. Real understanding is not facile, nonconfrontational neutrality. It is the opposite—the embrace of confrontation as a process that helps us understand more deeply. Understanding others is research we are constantly conducting to know each other better, not just identifying symptoms of discrimination, prejudice, fear, and hatred, but discerning the causes.
The burden of that hard-won understanding does not rest on those for whom engaging with these harmful beliefs can prove injurious, even traumatizing; it rests more on those who, like me, have the privilege of choosing the occasion and degree of their social discomfort. Though finding common ground seems like a generally innocuous task, I find more often it involves the hard and painful work of examining myself and comparing shortcomings. That hard work is propelled not by absolution, but by merciful understanding. Mercy does not erase or negate a crime; it calls us to practice empathy with how we rectify that crime so we may move toward justice more constructively. It is in understanding, when I am willing to unravel someone else’s mangled hurt and see myself within it, to see my world as a mirror, that reconciliation becomes possible.
“Getting Out of the Way” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.