When I woke up this morning a lot of people had shared a link on facebook to the story of a conflict between two people on a plane, ironically on a flight that was taking many people home to celebrate thanksgiving. The story got me thinking a lot about compassion – and the limits that we place on it.
For anybody who hasn’t read it, the story goes that the plane was delayed and one woman – Diane – made a big fuss about needing to get home for Thanksgiving, causing the cabin crew some stress. Another passenger – Elan – livetweeted the exchanges. During the flight he continued to tweet as he sent Diane messages about her lack of compassion. She responded defensively, his messages became increasingly offensive, and when they landed she slapped him in the face. People following Elan on twitter retweeted his story and many deemed him a hero for calling Diane out on her lack of compassion.
You can read Elan’s whole livetweet commentary here.
I read this with amusement to begin with, sharing some of Elan’s glee at pointing out the selfishness of a privileged plane passenger and her tunnel vision at not realising how everyone around her was probably in the same boat. However, my amusement gradually became discomfort as I got through to the end. Another post helped me to realise why. Here, Dan Solomon points out Elan’s lack of compassion in not attempting to imagine why Diane might have been so upset at being delayed. Perhaps she did have reasons beyond those of other passengers for needing to get home. Certainly Elan’s responses did not help the situation, either for Elan or for the flight attendants (who are the people who we arguably should be most concerned with in this situation given how easy it is to treat such people as things – just their job roles – in such situations rather than as human beings).
Reading Dan Solomon’s post got me thinking further though about the ways in which compassion seems to be understood in all these commentaries: First Elan, and a lot of others, judge Diane for her lack of compassion and attempt to point it out. Then other people judge Elan for his lack of compassion and attempt to point that out.
It got me wondering about writing a post where we try to imagine all of the reasons why Elan might have done the things he did: background, the everyday language he is familiar with, the cultural pressures to crave celebrity. Perhaps he had such important reasons to want to get home for thanksgiving that Diane made him see red, and then there is the spiral of conflict that is so hard to step out of, and all of the people egging him on over twitter.
So then I could maybe judge Dan Solomon for his lack of compassion towards Elan and attempt to point that out? And then somebody else could judge me for my lack of compassion for Dan Solomon and point that out too? Where does this end?
It almost seems like there is only one piece of compassion available and we have to give it to one person at another’s expense. Also we are pulled into this polarised thinking where one person has to be the bad guy and the other the good guy, and we struggle to figure out which is which.
This all seems important to me because I become pulled into these kinds of everyday conflicts often, and they generally play out in precisely these ways: offence and defense, right and wrong, good and bad, compassion entirely for one person or entirely for the other. I recently heard a story about a conflict in a local town over the ownership of a bar which escalated in just this way and ended up in attempted murder. It doesn’t take a great leap to see the resonances between these kinds of interpersonal conflicts and the much larger scale ones that play out on our TV screens.
My own view is that if our goal is to prevent, or stop, the escalating conflict then compassion is definitely key. All of the commentators on this story are, I think, right to focus on compassion. But the compassion needs to be extended to all of the players here: to the flight attendants at having to deal with this situation, to the others on the plane, to Diane with her stress and tunnel vision and – now – her despair at being the target of so much hatred, to Elan and his joy/fear/excitement at being the person to do something, to the retweeters and their thrill at what Elan did.
Our compassion might involve remembering times when we have been in similar situations to all of these people, and – perhaps – behaved in even worse ways than them. It might involve – as Dan Solomon did – imagining all the possible reasons behind each person’s behaviour (and imagining that there are some we can’t even imagine, and asking whether we even need to deem them ‘good reasons’). It might involve thinking about how we would treat our friends differently if it was them involved and not these strangers. It might involve calling ourselves on our own tendencies to judge before understanding, and to treat people as things, and having compassion for that as well.
We can’t put a limit on compassion. Rather, in letting it circulate freely through the whole situation we can – perhaps – create an endpoint in this spiral of aggression.
Following this story playing out, it seems that the whole thing was a hoax by Elan – a reality TV producer – including a supposed letter from a family member of Diane’s claiming that she was terminally ill. This doesn’t really change the argument above given that situations like this do unfold all the time. And we might also ask ourselves whether we can have compassion for such a hoaxer, for those who are taken in by a hoax…