Here’s a crazy fact about our ancestors that you probably remember from History class: we used to live in tiny houses. Whole families shared small huts that were basically drafty broom closets, because “small” also meant “warm”, and staying cozy in the Stone Age hacienda – maybe after fending off prehistoric hyenas or runaway woolly mammoths – was a top priority.
Small homes also meant no privacy. Everything you did – eating, sleeping, whittling, sexing – you did to an audience. It must have been awkward pretty much all the time but, on the plus side, there was, literally, no room for fighting.
If you suspected Cousin Thag of stealing your favourite sharp rock, you couldn’t passive-aggressively ignore Thag because he slept two feet away from you. You couldn’t slip an herbal laxative into Thag’s food because you all ate from the same clay pot. You couldn’t even libel Thag in the press because there was no press yet and you were not a wizard.
Conflicts, then, needed swift resolution, which meant talking things out ASAP. Sure, you could escalate to wrestling or maybe trading blows with a club until one of you bled a lot, but neither of those options was really popular.
So talking things out became the ultimate problem-solver, and not only for settling arguments but also for keeping the day-to-day stuff running smoothly. (“Carl, whose turn was it to lay out the mammoth trap? We need to figure that out before everybody goes to bed. Also we need to deal with that draft in the hut, before the Great Long Freezing Time comes – also you should maybe bathe again. Alright, good talk.”)
We got to be great talkers, and it was good.
And then a funny thing happened. As we evolved and technology progressed; we harnessed the power of fire, modern science, naked selfies, etc., we began to devolve as communicators; we got less good at the “talking” thing.
Fast forward to today and, at least in the First World, things have become too good and easy – to the point where we no longer need to constantly talk things out in order to survive; the conversational muscle has begun to atrophy.
People point to social media and video games as examples of how bad it’s gotten. It’s true that it’s probably not healthy to only communicate via Tweet or to go on a 30-hour World of Warcraft bender, occasionally barking at Mom for more nachos while your online avatar idly threatens other avatars with beatings and rape. But those folks seem more like outliers than the norm.
Air travel is the way better example, an indicator of how the most affluent and educated – those who can afford an airline ticket – are behaving and, at the risk of stating the obvious, it’s fucking horrible.
This brings me, inevitably, to the recent saga of the Knee Defender. That, of course, is the infamous air travel gadget that’s quietly been on sale for about a decade, but only recently made international headlines.
Available for purchase online for the sociopathic air traveler in your life, the Knee Defender comprises a pair of plastic claws that attach to an airline passenger’s seatback that, once in place, restrict said seat from reclining in front of you, preserving your own knee room. The Defender is selling well because it’s cheap and evidently effective at its intended purpose, if that purpose is to incite a riot at 35,000 feet.
See, it turns out passengers don’t like being tricked into keeping their seatbacks un-reclined: there have been numerous reported in-flight violent incidents related to the Knee Defender’s use, occasionally resulting in police being called and flights being diverted.
Obviously starting a fight on an airplane is idiotic, but there could be no other outcome with the Knee Defender. It would be like sitting at a bar, pulling out a slingshot and firing it at a fellow patron, and then acting surprised when he, in turn, knocks you out. (In my defense I had just bought the slingshot and could not wait to use it.)
Or how about this example: imagine looking for a seat on a crowded bus and seeing an otherwise empty chair being occupied by one of those “fake vomit” novelty gags, because a passenger placed it next to his own seat to free up more space for his elbows. You don’t question the vomit because you’re a reasonable human and sometimes vomit happens, especially on buses. You move on your way, but you’ve been had – bamboozled by a jerk with rubber puke and boundary issues. Not a nice feeling.
Actually that may not be a perfect analogy, because there are obviously times when fake vomit is absolutely called for, whereas there is never an appropriate occasion for the Knee Defender.
To wit, the gadget has since been banned by most Canadian and American airlines, which is as it should be. But it does beg the question, how did we even get to the point were people thought the Knee Defender in any way resembled a “good idea”?
The answer is, of course, we’re sadly at the point where we’d prefer to use an absurd gadget rather than talk things out, like our cave-dwelling ancestors.
Sure, pre- Knee Defender, air travel etiquette wasn’t perfect – once in a while an irate man-child would refuse to turn off his smartphone during takeoff, or a crazed zealot would try to ignite a bomb he hid inside his Jockey briefs, but at least you were assured no one would use a pair of plastic hair clips to lock down their neighbour’s seat, like a true psychopath.
So that’s the takeaway here, for all of us. It should apply at 35,000 feet and on terra firma. Don’t resort to using passive-aggressive gadgets; don’t be a sociopath with air miles. Let’s go back to using our mouth-holes, like reasonable communicators; let’s get back to talking things out and being civilized, just like our caveman ancestors.