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How to deal with schmucks (like the guy Delta Air Lines just banned)

Twitter via Esquire

There’s a lot more public nastiness since the election. For example, there’s the passenger who, as a Delta Air Lines flight was boarding, starting shouting offensive stuff like “Donald Trump, baby! We got some Hillary bitches on here?” Delta has banned him for life. Is this the right way to deal with real-life trolls?

Here’s part of what Delta CEO Ed Bastian wrote in a memo to employees about the incident:

After questioning the customer, our team members made the best decision they could given the information they had and allowed him to remain on the flight. However, if our colleagues had witnessed firsthand what was shown in the video, there is no question they would have removed him from the aircraft. He will never again be allowed on a Delta plane.

. . . Delta has apologized to the customers onboard that flight. We are also refunding those customers the cost of their tickets.

I also want to make sure all of you know we have your backs. The heightened tension in our society means that now more than ever we must require civility on our planes and in our facilities. We must stay true to Delta’s core values and treat one another with dignity and respect. We also must remain committed more than ever to the safety of our customers and our crew members. We will not tolerate anything less.

The beastliness of our times

The 2016 presidential election was the nastiest U.S. election in my lifetime. Trump talked constantly about “crooked Hillary,” while Clinton said half of Trump’s supporters were a “basket of deplorables.” It’s no exaggeration to say that the electorate decided this election on hate — more people in swing states hated the idea of Hillary Clinton than hated the idea of Donald Trump. People are still angry.

The worst of Trump’s supporters — and it only takes a few — have been responsible for a few well-publicized acts of publicized hatred, stupidity, and trollery. In addition to the Delta asshole, there’s the Trump voter who berated a Starbucks barista and the shopper who went on a racist rant in a Michael’s store. It’s not just shouting. Hate crimes against muslims are up. Civility is unraveling. We, as a society, need to stop it.

Dealing with schmucks

The video of the Delta incident is only 43 seconds long. The behavior is terrible. But I can see how the flight attendants may not have seen this while it was happening, or realized everything that the guy was saying. They’re not omniscient.

We know how to deal with trolls on the Internet: ignore them, delete their comments, or out them. (I’ve had my share.)

But real-life trolls are more dangerous. I call them schmucks — a mildly offensive yiddish term for a jerk. And now that there are more of them, the 99% of us that are not schmucks need a way to deal with them. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Don’t put the onus on retail staff and authority figures. It’s tough enough to work behind a counter. If you’re black, speak with an accent, or wear a headscarf, you’ve probably been a target. The rest of us — management, fellow shoppers, regular people — ought to have your back. It’s not the police’s problem or the manager’s problem to be everywhere and stop everything. It’s our society, and it’s our problem to fix now.
  • Management should put policies in place to deal with hate in the workplace. Yesterday, I wrote about Nordstrom’s memo about carrying Ivanka Trump merchandise, which included a vague reference to backing up sales staff in a tense time. Every retail establishment or service company needs a stronger policy than this. Such a policy should of course prohibit racist or sexist language from colleagues — and terminate any who use it. But it should also enable sales people to point to the policy and use it to eject or ban customers who behave in a threatening or intolerant way. The customer is not always right, if the customer is on a racist rant. Delta’s decision to ban its shouting passenger seems harsh, but it sends a clear message to the flight attendants that they have the right and duty to shut down behavior like this.
  • We, as customers, should support each other and the workers that serve us. A popular cartoon about dealing with Islamophobia is a good guide. It recommends engaging victims in conversation, which frustrates attacker without creating confrontation. Our instinct as bystanders is to turn away. But if we, as a group, collect around those being attacked verbally, it makes it a lot harder for the schmucks to accomplish their goals. Assuming there are no firearms involved, grab a fellow customer and go stand near the victim and talk to them. I’m not recommending conflict — I’m recommending de-escalation. Focus on helping the victim, rather than confronting the attacker.
  • Deploy humor. I tend to have a quick wit — I hope I could apply it in a situation like this. “That’s a hell of a speech — are you hoping to get into politics?” “Whoah, I had no idea that Donald Trump had come out in favor of yelling at salespeople.” “Gee, the espresso here must be extra strong if it gets people this excited.” (Lame, I know, but the point is to defuse the situation, not to get people rolling around laughing.) Maybe I’d just end up punched out or on the floor. But I do know that unless you’re six-foot five and 250 pounds, you don’t want to engage a bully on their own terms.

You can blame the media for inflaming our basest instincts. You can certainly blame Trump, who has a responsibility to be clearer about the need to end racist and threatening behavior from some of his followers. And of course, you can blame the individuals who are behaving like schmucks. But as comfortable and satisfying as it is to assign blame, we have to acknowledge that we got here as a nation, and now we have to deal with it. If we all take a little more responsibility, then perhaps people won’t feel bold enough to behave like schmucks in public places.

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  1. “Such a policy should of course prohibit racist or sexist language from colleagues — and terminate any who use it.”

    You’re a ‘language guy’, right? ‘Terminate’, really? This is fascist language. You Americans have to cool down. Stop the hate speech but also stop the political correctness nonsense. Freedom of speech includes things no one with a proper mind wants to say or hear, but freedoms are only of some value, if you can go to the extremes, otherwise it is no freedom at all.

    1. Freedom of speech means that the government cannot shut down speech. It does not stop me from throwing you out of my home, or my business, if you use racist or sexist language, or verbally abuse me, my family or my employees. As far as “political correctness” goes, that is just the conservatives’ way of saying that he should be able to say whatever he wants, wherever he wants, no matter how offensive, with impunity. well, not in my private space, and if you do it in public-it is MY right to call you on it.

      1. Right on, Barbara! Perhaps those outside of the US – the hint was “You Americans” (which seems condescending at best) – should just sit down unless they truly understand what the 1st Amendment is. Freedom is complicated.

        As Henry so eloquently remarked below, safety is of first concern. This man’s behavior is threatening the safety (or perceived safety) of every passenger. Perhaps a select few don’t see it as such but I can honestly say that if this happened on my flight, I would be terrified.

        You don’t need a weapon to threaten someone’s safety and Delta has the obligation (and states it in their policy) to protect passenger’s safety. They sent a clear message to anyone else who’s considering this behavior that it won’t be tolerated. Bravo!

  2. This site is migrating from solid intellectual discourse to closet Liberal rant page. Yes tensions are up. but if you had not noticed its been headed that way for a long time, we cannot suddenly lay this at the foot of the fool Trump. I suggest our European friend who commented above is correct. Chill out and stop being ‘triggered’ by every flea.
    A lot of kids in my 3 sons grades are actually using the word triggered as a mocking joke about how overly sensitive people are being. Talk about backfiring.
    Have some emotional fortitude. there is not doubt this man was rude. He should have been dealt wi, I’m not sure the response was proportional to the offense.. The ‘ we got your back’ comment from the CEO ensures I shall never fly Delta again.

  3. It does seem like part of Trump’s appeal is the freedom to let out our inner schmuck. This guy is lame and rude. But banning him from Delta for life? Refunding everyone their ticket price? The punishment and compensation to the victims seem absurdly out of proportion to the offense.
    Will there be unintended consequences? Will people commit offenses of this sort to get free travel, for example?

    1. Refunding everyone’s money seems like overkill, I agree.

      The right thing would have probably been to throw him off that flight and put him on notice. But since that didn’t happen, Delta wanted to make a statement.

    2. Refunding the money is a way of saying “we screwed up, big time” and will create goodwill for Delta. Refunding everyone’s fares may also help reduce the potential for lawsuits (because, yes, inevitably someone will try to sue the airline for this). As for banning him, please see my comment below. Delta made the correct decision.

  4. I’m going to weigh in here form the standpoint of someone who has worked in the airline industry, including running marketing for The Trump Shuttle (where I worked with Mr. Trump), and 16 years as a travel industry analyst, including almost 12 years at Forrester.

    An airline’s primary objective is to transport people and goods safely. Safety, in our post-9/11 world, includes a secure and calm cabin. Passengers who exhibit behavior that indicates the potential to cause harm to passengers, crew, and/or the aircraft compromise that safety. If you read an airline’s Contract of Carriage (a perfect cure for insomnia), you will find airlines reserve the right to remove a passenger from a flight — and possibly ban them from the carrier — when their behavior is deemed to threaten safety.

    All airlines have a responsibility to provide their employees and passengers with not just safe aircraft, but safe environments in which we are transported. This decision was a brave one for Delta to make – and it was the right decision to make as well. With it, Delta said that employee and passenger safety comes first — and schmucks can fly another airline.

      1. Thanks, Henry. I also feel the same way. I would’ve been terrified had this guy been on my flight. In fact, I don’t think I would have stayed on the flight. What Delta did sent a zero-tolerance message to the public. Bravo.

        I agree with Josh that companies are going to need to provide clear policies and training on how to handle these situations. And they’re going to need to do it quickly. I’m reminded of a friend who reported on the campaign trail and they all had to undergo training on what to do in various scenarios where violence could occur. It was something they’d never had to do…ever. But the company saw the need and put it into place.

        I hope to see quick movement on policies to protect employees (and customers).

  5. Thanks for this column but I’m sad to report I find most of your suggestions unrealistic. Our society has turned more and more uncivil in all spheres, not just politics. I have found that ANY comment to a verbally abusive person will be met with a lound and unrestrained diatribe against the commenter. Such situations as: repeatedly and louding using the f-bomb in a Starbacks line, loudly talking in a theater, sining a laer into the faces of peop,e onstage at a concert, etc. In most cases there is no person in authority to ask to intercede (airplanes are different, obviously). I am sorry to say I don’t see any solution. I do think Delta did the right thing and I hope their action incentiveizes mid-level managers/supervisors to do something rather than simply try to avoid problems

    1. If not unrealistic, hard to do—especially with how some people behave.

      There’s no 100% workable solution of course. Still, any solution is better than none.

  6. Did Delta go too far by refunding all passengers’ ticket costs? Delta’s CEO said that “if our colleagues (flight attendants?) had witnessed firsthand what was shown in the video, there is no question they would have removed him (Trump fan) from the aircraft.”

    This political activist’s rant lasted for most of the 43 seconds in the video. Where were these Delta colleagues that they missed this long, loud, and aggressive speech? Or were they not trained to assess the danger? (Today ranter of any stripe on an airplane equals, “Get me outta here.”)

    Hey Delta: It’s a litigious society; your hush money was well spent.

  7. This reminds me of that wonderful airline ad: White woman complains that she has a black seatmate (obviously a businessman but that’s besides the point. Stewardess tells them that captain has found a seat in first class — for him, of course, as she smiles in expectation and starts to get out her seat.
    Apologies to the advertising team and airline for not noticing which one! In the meantime, yes, Delta gets my business hands down.

  8. Since this is a blog about writing, I thought I’d call attention to one small element in Josh’s fine essay. Josh refers to the word “shmuck” as a “mildly offensive Yiddish term for a jerk” and provides an excellent link discussing whether the word is really obscene or not, since its original meaning was “penis.” The consensus appears to be that the word has lost its obscene meaning. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, NY, calling someone a shmuck was fightin’ words. It wasn’t till I came to Pennsylvania in 1971 that I heard people using it an offhand way and I was totally shocked. Now, considering that some other slang terms for penis include “prick” and “dick,” –two words which we do not use to mean just a “jerk” when we apply them to someone–the idea that “shmuck” is no longer an intensely obscene insult suggests to me that something important has been lost here. I just want it understood, that if I call someone a shmuck, I an not intending to be mildly offensive–I am describing someone whose behavior is extremely, unequivocally offensive to me (and mostly likely others) and who deserves no respect or consideration. So please folks, let’s all try not to be shmucks, okay?