Jewish Journal

Bullying Isn’t Funny

by Susan Esther Barnes

December 2, 2013 | 3:51 pm

Photo from Wikimedia/russavia

This story was making the rounds on social media this past Thanksgiving weekend. It starts as a seemingly self-centered passenger complains to a flight attendant about her delayed flight, and how it’s important to her to get to her destination in time to help cook the stuffing for Thanksgiving.

A fellow passenger begins to Tweet about the incident, quoting both the woman and the flight attendant. Through the first few lines, I can see how these Tweets might seem amusing. The woman doesn’t seem to understand that everyone on the plane has the same concern as she does about getting home in time for Thanksgiving, or that complaining won’t help the situation. It’s hard to understand why the stuffing would be such a big deal.

When I read about this incident, I thought how sad it was that neither the Tweeting man nor the other passengers tried to help. I wonder how things might have turned out if he, or anyone else within earshot, had stepped in to say something helpful, such as, “I’m sure the airline is doing all they can to get us to our destination on time. Could you tell me about your stuffing? It sounds very special.”

Instead, the person doing the Tweeting decided to send her a glass of wine, with a note written on the coaster, saying he hopes that if she drinks it she “won’t be able to use your mouth to talk.” This is where the action goes from possibly comical to mean-spirited. Again, I couldn’t help but think how differently the story might have been if the Tweeter had written something kind and supportive instead of insulting her.

Furthermore, I wonder about the collusion of the flight attendant at this point. Did the flight attendant deliver the wine without reading the coaster? If he did read the coaster, why did he deliver it? Why not refuse to do so? It seems to me he must have read it, if you believe the subsequent Tweet, “The male flight attendant is giving me the ‘let’s just pretend this never happened’ face.”

The Tweeter still isn’t satisfied, and wants to send the woman two bottles of vodka, but the flight attendant refuses to do so. Again, why does the flight attendant take no steps to try to stop this interaction in its tracks? He must have some idea of what is coming, or he wouldn’t have refused to deliver the vodka.

The Tweeter delivers it himself, then receives a note from the woman – naming herself as Diane – saying the wine and the vodka weren’t funny. This is the perfect time for the Tweeter to realize he has gone too far. At some point, his actions have gone from possibly amusing Tweets to bullying. Her note could have been a wake-up call for him to cut it out and apologize.

Unfortunately, in the note Diane goes on to call the Tweeter an “awful person with no compassion” and to say, “I’m sorry for your family that they should have to deal with you.” It’s too bad she felt she had to go there, but it’s hardly surprising, giving the insulting tone of his note to her. Still, the Tweeter could have realized how badly he was making her feel, and he could have chosen to take the high road at this point.

Instead, he goes completely over the line, sending a subsequent note ending with a vulgar, “Eat my ----.” At this point, there is no question that the interaction is not funny. Instead of just letting the matter drop, he has ratcheted it up another notch. Some of the commenters online call it sexual harassment. Some believe it’s a typical power play of a man trying to control the behavior of a woman. No matter what you call it, he is now, without question, way out of bounds.

The confrontation continues from there. The whole thing strikes me as sad. There were so many people who could have intervened and so many points along the line when this whole thing could have been stopped. Instead, it was allowed to escalate.

I can’t help but think of the commandment, “Do not stand idly by while the blood of your neighbor is spilled.” Why didn’t the flight attendant, or any of the other passengers, try to intervene? Bullies can only continue to do what they do with the help and complicity of others.

Just as bad were those who posted this whole thing online, saying it was funny or, “She got what she deserved.” She is a human being, and deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, even if she does seem to be a bit self-centered. She most certainly did not get what she deserved, which would be some measure of support and protection from the flight attendants, if not the other passengers.

We all have bad days. We all say and do things we wish we hadn’t. But nobody deserves to be bullied, most especially in an environment, like an airplane, from which we cannot escape, and most especially not when we’re in a high-stress situation, such as when we’re afraid we will miss a connecting flight and therefore miss an important holiday.

All of this would be true, even had nobody posted this follow-up, in which a person claiming to be Diane’s cousin says the reason she was so stressed that day is Diane is suffering from stage IV cancer, so this would likely have been her last Thanksgiving with her family. If she had made her connection. Which she did not; she had to spend the night in a hotel, and missed the family celebration this year.

Now there is something to think about the next time you encounter a passenger whose behavior you don’t particularly like.

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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