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Who Draws the Line?

I’m am continually flummoxed by the general reactions of “teh internet” when it comes to “sensitivity”.

The latest moral outrage comes by way of a design blogger, Steven Heller, who decided to compare the design schematics of old slave ships with those of modern airliners. Of course, just like the guy who decided to break with the masses and suggest that not everything about the internet is sunshine and ponies, Mr. Heller has received a response that seems heavy on the accusation and light on any actual brain activity.

Perhaps it’s simply easier to be angry and upset, pointing toward socially-agreed upon scapegoats in order to avoid making an argument or engaging in actual thought.

I’m confused, mainly, because from a design standpoint there is absolutely a visual similarity. Heller points out the absurdity of this, and is greeted by charges of racism. I’m still uncertain why racism would be the charge. In breezing through the comments for substance, I was able to find a few references which partially explain the outrage. It was the usual “demeaning the suffering of African slaves” and the insensitivity of daring to compare a modern airline with something as despised and hated as the slave trade.

And yet, my initial thoughts in reading the short, picture-laden post were not the immediate, visceral charge of seeing it through the eyes of “us vs. them”, they were observations on the consistency of humanity throughout the ages. Unless I missed the point completely, Heller was getting across that the economic factor of packing as many human slaves into a slave ship is visually and spatially similar to the means by which airlines pack as many individuals into an airliner as possible. Again, the internet forgets that this isn’t a zero-sum game.

Business hasn’t changed, and only a moron would insist that any comparison, whatsoever, of slavery with anything other than slavery is somehow a racist, horrid action. The effect of this internet-led censorship isn’t to better conditions of the oppressed or to demonstrate the way in which systemic bias is still a huge problem in our society. No, the effect was to punish an individual for the gall to use his brain to identify a rather fascinating visual similarity. Heller wrote few words in the original post, but his line of reasoning was

Ever notice how similar the seating plans of airplanes resemble the more horrific layout (yet efficient design of those slave ships)? Could airplane designers be unconsciously influenced by them?

And that’s the point: that economics and the organizational necessity of fitting the most number of people in a finite space is still alive and well; that airlines follow an updated design philosophy which one can see the fine push and pull between maximizing persons as profit vs providing the least amount of personal space and comfort.

Again, I found the comparison fascinating, and I dearly hope that we’ll continue to talk more and more about the atrocities we, as humans, have committed since the beginning of time. In fact, it’s the act of squashing speech by which we repeat the mistakes of history.



5 thoughts on “Who Draws the Line?

  1. You have a lot to learn. The “outrage” is about privilege. You should learn about it.


    Posted by Fail | May 26, 2011, 9:02 am
  2. Again, I’ll reiterate my point in different language: the reaction is destructive and relies on straw-manning the author. Perhaps constructive discourses may be birthed from an objective observation, but they’re downed out by the yelling and screaming of those who desire to elevate themselves via the act of putting another down. I’m very well versed in postmodern thought, but that isn’t at all what’s going on here. You are free to disagree, but this sort of response is typical in that it ignores anything aside from the quick jab argument from authority which has neither bearing nor reference to anything concrete.

    Posted by autonomousdesire | May 26, 2011, 9:12 am
  3. Must be nice, having that sort of tone-deaf detachment that allows you to plaintively ask why “we” (who’s “we”?) can’t just use gross instances of the oppressions of others as metaphors for (predominantly) middle-class discomfort, and belittling people who have the empathy you seem to be lacking.

    As for the supposed “similarity,” see this comment. In brief, it’s less design than packing.

    Also, Heller’s fauxpology, and his whining at how people refused to accept it, made matters considerably worse.

    Posted by anonymous | June 12, 2011, 10:29 am
  4. Anon,

    I think that’s the point: “In brief, it’s less design than packing.” But “packing” remains the same within a middle-class context. If we can’t learn to learn, then we’re doomed to ignore and dismiss. Case in point is the difference in space between first-class and coach- that is, that money equals better treatment. Just because, economically, there exists little theoretical difference between slavery-as-trade and commodity-as-trade doesn’t negate the comparison. Too often we have blinders when it comes to class. Race, sex and orientation theory is “hip”, but what we mistake is that we continue to fight the same battles over socio-economic turf and we continually neglect to take into account the systemic economic violence against the working/middle class.

    It IS simple “economic packing”, and that’s the issue.

    And to run through the rest quickly: 1) “We” is pretty clearly anyone who read the article. Specifically those of you who should know better than to dismiss a critique of the capitalist disregard for human comfort. 2) The “Middle Class” is an ally, not an enemy, and we’d do well to remember that the current trend of democratic politics seeks to dismantle the middle class within the United States. 3) I’d rather not have empathy. If you spend more than a few minutes here on this blog I’m sure you’ll find an abundance of compassion. 4) There was only a “fauxpology” because there was outrage over Heller’s theory on non-theoretical grounds. He never sought to create theory, yet was thrust into a context which was inherently oppressive. We have ripped him apart for the gall to consider that capitalism is still capitalism, regardless. We seem to think that there is some sort of “humane” instinct when capitalism is pointed at the middle class, yet we abhor exploitation that it is easy to condemn. How about we condemn the deplorable conditions in the slums (same theory of “packing”) or the way that employees are squeezed into tiny cubicles for 40+ hours a week (same theory of “packing”)?

    And we wonder why the wealthiest 5% have no problem keeping hold of their power? Because we’re so busy fighting amongst ourselves that we’re simply a laughingstock.

    My point is that capitalism hasn’t changed, and this immediately brought forth the images of thousands of modern day equivalents just as sickening. The rest of you seem content to smile smugly about some theoretical character flaw and then go to bed contented with the knowledge that you beat someone up over the internet for shit that doesn’t matter.

    Posted by autonomousdesire | June 12, 2011, 4:35 pm
  5. I’d also like to point out my final paragraph for those who have missed it:

    “Again, I found the comparison fascinating, and I dearly hope that we’ll continue to talk more and more about the atrocities we, as humans, have committed since the beginning of time. In fact, it’s the act of squashing speech by which we repeat the mistakes of history.”

    Posted by autonomousdesire | June 12, 2011, 4:40 pm

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