In his travel book Labels, Evelyn Waugh describes the experience of flying in the early days of aviation. He sits on a wooden deck chair and the other passenger (there is only one) sits behind him; he looks out the window and notices, as you would expect him to notice, given that he’s Evelyn Waugh
…a tower or a high hill are all the eminence one needs for observing natural beauties. All one gains from this effortless ascent is a large scale map. Nature, on an elusive principle, seems unusually to provide its own view-points where they are most desirable.
Inside, all is not well. Waugh becomes travel sick and, to the annoyance of his fellow passenger, vomits in her face. Happily, the sick bag had already been invented, so none of it got on her. Point is: even back then there was no space on a plane. As a result, flying makes people unpleasant.
I have the mildest of manners. But as soon as someone tilts their seat back even an inch, murder becomes a priority. If a baby makes baby noises, I think of Joan Rivers (‘is there a terrorist on board? I’m willing to help’). And if there really is a terrorist on board, forget it. I would rather die than go on trying to eat a sausage out of a paper cup with a spork.
So I felt some sympathy the other week when I watched a video that had ‘divided the internet’: two people on a plane, annoying each other. One was reclining in her chair. And the other was rocking the chair gently back and forth to be annoying. Chair-recliner was a woman. Chair-shaker, a man. In their place, I would be annoyed too. But my sympathy stops there because morality is simply how you behave when you’re tired, and in this case, we are plainly dealing with monsters of depravity.
Worse, they are each beginning to amass supporters, followers… acolytes. Normally tribal feeling originates in the shared trauma of blood sacrifice, or football. But on the internet, it seems that the more trivial a disagreement, the more pseudo-ironic vitriol, disdain and aggression abounds.
A glance at Twitter reveals the scale of the problem: radicalised young men, living out their fantasies of chair-reclining versus chair-shaking. On the one side:
After a hard 90 minute battle of constantly volleying the back of this old bitch’s chair on the flight, I can happily say that it was another victory for the anti-recliners (@jyoung597)
And on the other side:
I almost threw hands with some motherfucker behind me on my flight who kept pushing into the back of my chair for 3 FUCKING HOURS. fuck you guy (@felissetv)
Look at the moral-visceral gap between thought and action: one of them kicks a chair, the other doesn’t do anything. He just ‘almost’ does something. Then look at the implied potency withheld, the fight unfought. It reminds me of Joker. It reminds me, more proximately, of Jo Maugham QC, who said on Boxing Day: ‘Already this morning I have killed a fox with a baseball bat. How’s your Boxing Day going?’
Anyway, look at the disdain, the disrespect (‘bitch’, ‘some motherfucker’). Even in the private diaries of the Marquis de Sade, there’s nothing like that.
Mona Eltahawy points out that chair-shaker would not have been chair-shaking another man: ‘Men are socialised into owning public space,’ she says. ‘This is what happens when a woman owns it.’ Not sure about that last point. Where does public space end and private space begin? Sitting down, public space probably ends where your face is.
There can be no doubt that we are dealing with a small man here, a petty man, the kind of man who would beat a fox to death and then post a selfie with the mangled cadaver. But what sort of woman are we dealing with?
Mona says, ‘If it’s wrong to recline, seats wouldn’t recline.’ But that would be like saying, ‘If it’s wrong to close the lift doors in someone’s face, lifts wouldn’t have the little button to close the doors.’ It’s still unpleasant. It’s still the kind of thing that you would have to try and justify as you’re doing it, like running over a man because he looks a bit like Hitler and maybe time travel has been invented after all.
Incidentally, this hypothetical Hitler-lookalike probably wouldn’t be much consoled to think that the driver hitting him was a woman: ‘Oh, that’s all right,’ I don’t imagine him saying. ‘Normally only men are socialised into owning public space in this way.’ Frankly it’s more likely that it actually is time-travelling Hitler. So I suppose in some ways it is the right thing to do.
I’ve obviously gone mad at this point. I can’t even remember why I mentioned Evelyn Waugh earlier. Let’s just say that, like Evelyn Waugh, and Hitler, these people are both deeply, deeply awful, and come together as one frenzied internet-mob to condemn them both. And anyway, thanks to the spread of a deadly, debilitating virus, you and I may never have to get on a plane again.