It is rare that an ethics issue breaks down neatly into two well-defined camps, but that is the what has happened regarding an October episode in which Southwest airline flight attendants kicked a mother and her unusually loud two-year old off a flight. The child, according to the airline, was yelling so loudly (“Go plane go!” was his most memorable quote) that passengers couldn’t hear the pre-flight safety instructions. Pamela Root and her foghorn son were returned to the gate in Amarillo, Texas, and they had to stay overnight before catching another flight home in San Jose.
Later, Southwest not only apologized to Root but gave her a full refund and a $300 voucher. This set off Los Angeles Times columnist, Amy Alkon, who saw the flap as an opportunity to plug her upcoming book, “I See Rude People: One Woman’s Battle to Beat Some Manners into Impolite Society.” While criticizing the airline for apologizing, Alkon wrote,
“There is a notion, reflected in numerous blog comments about the incident, that other passengers should “just deal” and “give a kid a break.” This notion is wrong. Parents like Root and others who selfishly force the rest of us to pay the cost of their choices in life aren’t just bothering us; they’re stealing from us. Most people don’t see it this way, because what they’re stealing isn’t a thing we can grab on to, like a wallet. They’re stealing our attention, our time and our peace of mind.”
Immediately, the Times website was flooded with comments. About half cheered Alkon for having the courage to state what they believed was beyond dispute. One such reader wrote:
“Southwest should never have apologized. They did what they had to do to maintain safety on board, and to protect the entire plane from deafness. I raised my children to understand how we behave in public. Long in advance of public outings to restaurants, movies, or plane rides, we practiced our quiet voices and proper behavior. They knew what was expected, and knew the consequences. Many parents today do not seem to care about how their children behave. I work with the public and have seen it all, trust me. I agree that our sanity, peace of mind, and right to enjoy our surroundings have been stolen from us by lazy parenting.”
Slightly more than half of the commenters, however, disagreed with Alkon. This post rejecting her position was one of the milder ones:
“What ever happened to the notion of community? Crying kids are a fact of life, as are car horns, boisterous teenagers and, yes…people talking loudly on cell phones. Putting up with occasional noise and other annoyances is part of living in society, and I find the notion that individuals are entitled to peace and quiet whenever and wherever they choose both ludicrous and selfish. If you want to be assured of total control over your travel environment, Ms. Alkon, you have a choice to travel by yourself in your own car.”
My inclinations would normally be to side with Alkon, for I agree that we should not tolerate public rudeness, and allowing oblivious social muggers—to use her term—to make existence unpleasant for all around them without receiving strong negative reinforcement guarantees tyranny by the boorish. We should tell boisterous teenagers to settle down; we should tell the cell phone shouter to take his call elsewhere. This situation, however, is not one where a no-tolerance rule should apply, but the Golden Rule instead.
If the mother was the one who wouldn’t stop telling, “Go plane go,” by all means kick her off the plane. Any mother, however—yes, even the best—can have a child misbehave. If it happens in a movie theater, the parent has an obligation to take her child and leave; the same applies in a restaurant. Not in an airplane, however; that is a situation when an overwhelmed and mortified mother should be able to rely on sympathy, empathy, tolerance, graciousness, understanding and yes, sacrifice from her fellow society members, the other passengers. An unruly child, unlike tank tops, body odor, flip- flops, and the passenger next to you watching the porno film on his laptop, is not a new incursion into civilized airplane decorum. It happens, it has happened since children could fly in commercial planes, and no parent allows it to happen intentionally. It is not an example of selfishness, and no extra admonition or penalty is required.
“It really does come down to this,” writes Alkon. “Your right to bring your screaming child on a plane ends where the rest of our ears begin.” There are limits, of course, and Root’s child may have exceeded them. Still, Alkon’s formula suggests a level of intolerance and entitlement that public activity does not, can not and should not guarantee. Clumsy people slow the line at the automated teller machine; cautious seniors wary of their reflexes cause us to get caught at red lights; excited young children create obstacles in public parks. It’s called life, not malice. We should help each other out, and sometimes, the only help needed is a little patience. Or more than a little. The Golden Rule reminds us that we might be grateful for some patience too, some day.
It sounds to me as if Southwest handled an extreme situation well. If the child was so loud he posed a safety risk, the attendants were right to insist that the mother and child leave. But the airline was also correct to express its regrets and do what it could to mitigate the mother’s misfortune. This won’t encourage her to let her child scream on the next flight. It does show that the airline regretted what it had to do, and understands that Mrs. Root was not necessarily at fault.
I confess that my attitude toward this issue is affected by a vivid personal experience. I once flew across the Atlantic on a flight filled with American parents returning from Russia with infants and children they had adopted there. There was a child or two in every row, and all of them were flying for the first time. The babies were crying, the toddlers were shouting, and some of the older children were trying to get their new English-speaking parents to understand them. It was the noisiest flight imaginable, and the noise was from the sounds of families being created, and children flying to new lives and new hope, in a new country. It was wonderful.
Somehow, screaming children on flights never bothered me after that.
In fact, I kind of like them.