The “For the Safety of Everyone” Shibboleth

Photo by Lukas Souza on Unsplash

Last week my family went on vacation, and upon return endured the safety protocols mandated by federal law that have been imposed on travelers in airports and on airplanes. Vaccinated or not, masks are required of everyone.

From the jump, it was clear the flight crew on the first leg of our return was vigilant about masking. One of the crew, let’s call her O., awakened me from slumber with an exhortation to another passenger to pull their mask above their nose. Her words were the polite ones, but her tone was the condescending one.

Later, O. told another passenger to mask between sips and bites. She was clearly agitated.

And finally, with about twenty minutes left on our flight, O. took to the intercom system and scolded all passengers about masking, declaring we had all agreed to mask when we purchased our tickets, that masking was federally mandated, that the flight crew was only allowed to warn us “so many times,” and that if we were eating, we should take a bite, replace our mask, or if we were drinking, we should do the same. Off. On. Off. On. If your mask is off, no respiration allowed. Only expose your mouth to nibble or sip.

I thought of elementary school, those moments when the teacher unleashed a tirade against the class when the intolerable offense was committed by one student. This was like one of those moments. We were collectively guilty, and thus collectively shamed, though we all knew who was at fault, that the treatment we received was unfair, and that this matter should have been handled one to one, in a more mature, just manner.

If a passenger refused to mask according to the crew’s liking, I wondered what would come next. Would they turn the plane around? Would they eject the offending passenger? Shove them down a garbage chute, and activate the compactor? Would they issue an arbitrary flight ban? Withdraw future flight snacking privileges? What would be the consequence?

And if a passenger objected to the collective scolding, what would happen to that individual?

The justification for our scolding was that these practices are “for the safety of everyone” and, therefore, must be observed.

That is simply not true. At this stage, these practices are for the relatively safety of some, not all. The vaccines have been available for months. Anyone choosing to travel without the vaccine has had ample opportunity to receive it and should be held responsible for their choices.

O.’s tone, in addition to the phrasing of her message, were meant to convey that vigilant maskers, like herself, are good. Those who do not comply to the crew’s satisfaction are bad.

Policy makers have asked the public to take specific actions because they think the benefits will outweigh the costs. But the reasons given for the rules have to make sense. It would have been better to say these measures are prescribed to help minimize the spread of the delta variant, to keep the airlines operative, and to prevent the cabin from becoming an incubator of contagion.

Back in 1994, Delta’s slogan was “You’ll Love the Way We Fly.” Not on this flight.

Thankfully, on the second leg of our flight, we didn’t have another O. I can put up with the mitigation policies. But the condescension I can do without.