I like Reddit. It’s a great source of entertainment, information, and a view into society’s subconscious. It’s maybe more liberal than society as a whole, but if you factor that into your skepticism filter you can get a lot of great insight from the users there. Recently, Reddit has been talking almost non-stop about the guy who got beaten up and dragged off the United flight. I got to see a little microcosm of the outrage cycle.
So when some kind of injustice occurs, inflicted on a powerless person by a powerful entity, a few things happen. First off is shock. I can’t believe the police shot that guy walking down the street. I can’t believe Assad poisoned his own people. I can’t believe United would beat a guy unconscious and drag him off a plane. The next step is some type of justification for such behavior. Of course the cops shot that guy, he was arrested two years ago. Assad may not have been the one to poison anyone. The guy was asking to get dragged off by denying a legal request, and anyway he bought drugs years ago. It’s important to point out here that not every single individual goes through this process, but groups as a whole do.
What happens next largely depends on the standing the powerful institution has in our society. In the case of a cop shooting an unarmed person, the cop will get away scot-free. Police are glorified to an almost pornographic degree in US society. In the case of Assad, well, he’s Muslim, brown, and talks funny. It’s safe to say that most Americans will look at him with what could generously be described as mistrust. It’s a foregone conclusion he will be attacked, at minimum with words if not bombs. And no one really likes flying. We might love to travel, but we all hate flying to some degree. At best, it’s a necessary evil. It’s safe to say that United, and airlines as a whole, will take quite a beating in the court of public opinion.
Finally, once the story moves out of mainstream media, the last step in the cycle occurs. This is where context and details come to light. And this is often where the legal system takes over. The legal system is its own animal, with its own motivations and tools. A lot can happen here, but generally the outcome is determined by the actual power the big entity has. In the case of police, there is no question that police have a tremendous amount of power in our society. That’s why they generally get off. In the case of airlines, they have less power than you might think. They are going to have to pay this guy a great deal of money. In the case of Assad, well, he may not have much power, but his Russian benefactors do. It’s hard to say how that will play out, but my money is on Assad living a long, healthy life, where he will spend most of his days consolidating his power further. We shall see.