When truth sits in the wrong seat | Chuck's World

Apr 19, 2017

A friend and I used to hit the road every summer. The first trip was spontaneous and then routine snuck into the backseat, so warm weather would arrive and our thoughts turned to the highway.

I sometimes refer to these as camping trips, although the more I think about it I’m sure there was nothing resembling a camp. We’d share a cabin or a hotel room, walk on the beach, explore new towns, and just generally catch up on our lives.

It was on one of these trips, a long driving day and nothing to do but talk, that I first heard the joke. My buddy told it to me, prefacing the whole thing by packaging it as a litmus test. Some people laughed a lot; some people were just baffled. My friend was one of the baffled ones, and that made him curious about humor and taste and just differences in the way we perceive the world.

Two penguins are on an ice floe, drifting in the sea. One says to the other, “You look like you could be wearing a tuxedo.” The second penguin says, “What makes you think I’m not?”

I laughed, if memory serves, for the better part of a minute. I don’t know why, other than my particular affection for a particular form of absurdity.

It strikes me now, though, 20 years later, that part of the joke’s appeal is a sneaky commentary on our very human tendency to see a binary world and only that. You can either be a penguin, or you can be wearing a tuxedo, not both.

This is nothing new. In this country, our political system has been described as polarized for years now, just for one example.

Here’s another: For the past week or so, many of us have been wrestling with the United Airlines incident, when Kentucky physician David Dao was dragged off an overbooked flight he refused to leave. It was a perfect storm of modern sensibility, a soulless, bottom-line corporate vision indifferent to its customers, law enforcement apparently eager to play bad, a helpless consumer at the mercy of a complicated business model that makes air travel cheap, convenient, and incredibly frustrating.

On the other hand, I assume most of us in Dr. Dao’s position would have left the plane when asked. There are rules, mysterious and appearing sometimes arbitrary but rules. We learned about following rules right around the time we learned not to throw temper tantrums in public. Leave the plane, get as much compensation as possible for the inconvenience, and live to fly another day.

But it can’t be both, right? Either the airline was at fault, or the passenger. Black or white, wrong or right, Dao or United. Pick your side now.

Give us enough time and we’ll get there, of course. Our initial reactions to this story are emotional, visceral, and probably based on personal experience. With a few days to cool off, it’s possible to hold two seemingly contradictory notions in our brains at the same time.

But it’s hard, apparently, not made any easier when complicated ideas are tossed out in tweets. Modern life overwhelms us with information, a lot of it complex and difficult to absorb, driven by technology and tempered by busy lives. We need to form an opinion and move on. Nuance is for people with too much time on their hands.

And time is what we’re talking about. Truth is often the end result of hard work, and we work hard enough as it is. Who has the time to learn the details, particularly when we have cell phone footage?

The details are important, and at odds with the immediacy of viral videos. Americans like inexpensive air travel, and are increasingly able to find it. Airlines overbook because people don’t show up and they need a full flight to make those cheap seats available. The legal niceties of what appears to be a simple transaction aren’t all that simple. Dr. Dao was petulant, stubborn, and childish in his refusal to be inconvenienced by somebody essentially drawing straws. The Chicago police seemed awfully enthusiastic and cavalier about manhandling a paying passenger who wasn’t a threat to anyone, just annoying.

A year from now, we might vaguely remember this incident. Add another year and I’d bet that most of us won’t be able to pinpoint the exact airline involved, assuming it ever comes up in conversation. If Dr. Dao was eying compensation above and beyond the normal for bumping a passenger, he almost certainly made a good call; what’s a little blood and battery when you’ve turned at most a four-figure payday to a six- or seven-figure one?

It’s unlikely, too, that this will change anything other than giving us an image to think about when we hear that announcement about an overbooked flight. Next week I get on a plane, and I’ll sure be thinking about it. A year from now? I doubt it. There will be something else.

This is the world we live in now, one in which we feel compelled to rush to judgment based on confirmation bias and vertical video (are you interested in having your cell phone video used by television news? Turn your phone sideways). We have wonderful tools to find the truth, but it’s rarely simple and simple is often all we have time for.

Penguins and tuxedos, go figure. It still makes me laugh.

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