United Airlines and Dark Mofo

Hey guys it’s Michael, and today I bring you another round of That thing you’re outraged about is probably more complicated than you think. Two things to discuss today; the United Airlines passenger event in USA, and the Dark Mofo art installation, to be displayed at the Mona art museum in Tasmania, Australia.

First, United Airlines. In short, United Airlines needed to bump four paying customers from a flight to accommodate four United staff, who were needed at another location. Passengers were asked to volunteer their seat in exchange for compensation. Finally, still needing seats, United randomly selected some passengers. One passenger didn’t want to leave, citing that he was a doctor and had to see patients the next day. Police were called to remove him, and the passenger ended up being injured. I’m not sure what the extent of his injuries were (certainly not critical), but he was bleeding from his face.

While this event was very unfortunate and bad for the passenger in question (and made for some great memes), there are some important things to keep in mind before you get too upset (though it’s probably too late for that). These points are taken from this podcast, which had a good discussion on the finer details. Some salient points to consider:

  • The physical mistreatment of the customer was by the police, not by United. They were acting in the interests of the remaining customers (supposedly). Yet somehow much of the negative attention has been on United.
  • This isn’t that unusual. The business model of airlines is to book more customers than there are seats, with the assumption that some will not turn up. Occasionally this doesn’t work, so they pay people off. However despite these occurrences, airlines still run this business model because airlines are a super competitive business.
  • The story goes that, due to bad weather and some other extenuating circumstances, the United staff who were taking customer’s seats had to get to their destination or an entire other flight would be cancelled. Would we really say this customer should have kept their seat at the expense of a plane full of seats?

Is there more to this story? Almost definitely. Was United justified in their actions (accounting for the fact that they didn’t control the police aggression)? I’m leaning towards yes right now. The passenger was randomly selected and they refused to leave, wasting everyone else’s time and risking another entire flight. Sure, they paid for their ticket and they were entitled to it, but real life has extenuating circumstances sometimes, and people need to act.

The second story involves a three hour performance with a slaughtered bull, which on the outset appears reminiscent of a ritual. RSPCA has said that the art is disrespectful, but are very careful to say that they don’t object to the slaughter of the animal itself. It seems their issue with it is the treatment of the body. The art installation will be coming to the Mona art museum, a world-famous museum in Tasmania, Australia.

As a prelude, I like to steelman stuff, which means finding the merits of an argument that you don’t necessarily agree with, and maybe even make a stronger case for it than your adversary is making. I think this is a very useful thing to do to mitigate your own biases and ensure that your position truly is the correct one. Having said that, while I am in some ways defending the art installation here, I still don’t really know whether it’s a good thing. I’m just trying to make the point that it’s almost certainly not as easy an answer as you think.

This whole thing has two groups of people very upset – vegan animal advocates, and non-vegan animal advocates. The vegan animal advocates generally object to any use of animals for entertainment, and this falls under that category. The non-vegan animal advocates object to this because it’s… disrespectful or something. To that, I’ll just point out briefly that what is done to the animals whose products you consume might also be considered disrespectful (and induces suffering, if you care about tangible stuff that the animals would actually care about), you just don’t see it.

So I saw an article about this in my Facebook news feed and scrolled right past. I caught the gist, and was mildly against it. But then my mother, an artist, shared this blog post by David Walsh, founder and owner of the Mona art gallery. It was a long, but very enjoyable read, and I highly recommend it. I’ve highlighted some of my favourite paragraphs below, then say a few things.

All that verbiage and I still don’t know whether Nitsch’s performance is justified. I can argue that it does good by creating awareness of moral hypocrisy (highlighting the slaughter of millions of beasts a year for unneeded food) but it is hard to find a way that avoids it being categorised as a direct action, and humans generally think doing good by doing bad is wrong.

Yvette Watt, Tasmanian local and, I later found out, a ‘noted vegan crusader’, expressed her opinion on Facebook that it was not good art. For my purposes, it is good art. I believe that it has already spiked a conversation (thank you, Yvette) about the appropriateness of slaughter and Dark Mofo hasn’t even happened yet. That isn’t what the artist intends, but Mona has a history of repurposing art to serve its own psychological or political purpose.

If you don’t think the side-effect argument has merit consider this. We have a work at Mona by Jannis Kounellis (see this blog post). When whim pervades, we hang chunks of meat from hooks. Nobody cares. The only reason I can think of as to why that is okay, but Nitsch’s meat isn’t, is that Kounellis’ meat is killed for food and repurposed (side-effect), whereas Nitsch’s is killed for performance and later eaten (the side-effect is the only ‘legitimate’ purpose). I hate that Nitsch insists on eating the meat. I want clarity of intent—I want the audience to ponder why meat for food is okay (at least people aren’t protesting at Mona’s barbecue) but meat for ritual or entertainment isn’t.

Basically Walsh is making a utilitarian steelman case for the art installation, and he does a pretty good job. I’m skeptical as to how many animal product consumers would look at this art and be turned off animal exploitation/cruelty in general, and there is an argument to be made that this might desensitize people to violence, but the case seems plausible.

I guess what I might say to vegan animal advocates (a cohort I consider myself to be a part of), is, how much of this protest is symbolic, and how much is practical? If the show is cancelled, we might save one or more bulls. You could do that much good by donating around $1 to The Humane League. It might be a symbolic gesture in support of animals, but I don’t place much value in symbolism unless it has tangible effects on present or future wellbeing and suffering (which maybe it does, I just don’t see that being argued).

Everyone gets upset at stuff without thinking about the finer details. Even I will make a blog post sometimes without doing as much background reading as I should. From time to time, it bites me in the ass. The best one can do is be as careful as possible, and make a point of admitting and correcting your mistakes.

4 thoughts on “United Airlines and Dark Mofo”

  1. Another very thought provoking blog Michael!

    I plan to read Walsh’s blog on the Dark Mofo as it has, along with the art in question, spurred deeper thinking for me about what art’s role is in society.

    On the UA incident you could also consider another aspect. If I were a UA shareholder, I’d be pissed at the reputational damage incurred by an incident that could have been easily avoided. For example, money talks with people (and passengers) and a simple auction process where the airline incrementally increases the money offered to all passengers to ‘volunteer’ their seats up will at some point incentivize the right outcome.

    Re your point that the airline was ‘justified’ in their actions becasue they were trying to make good with other (more passengers) on another flight – the utilitarian argument. This argument neglects to consider that it is the airlines themselves that are responsible for the other flight to be cancelled becasue they didn’t have any enough schedule redundancy with their planning system. Of course they do this becasue redundancy chips away at their profit margins. Why is that the fault of the poor random passenger dragged off unceremoniously by police?

    1. It’s interesting you mention an auction system, because the podcast I linked suggested that too.

      Regarding your last paragraph, you’re right that they messed up logistically, but this could happen as the result of incompetence, slim margins, or just sheer act of god. I would argue that, as an airline passenger buying tickets slightly cheaper than you should be able to, that’s a risk you accept when you fly.

  2. Thanks for your blog Michael. As one of the vegan activists located in Tasmania trying to stop the Dark MoFo slaughter ‘art’, I can tell you that there is so much more to the protest than saving just one animal. Thinking about this issue, as many people are, in isolation from what is going on as a result of the protest leads people to think that perhaps it is a lot of fuss to save the life of one bull. Yes saving the bull can be seen as a symbolic gesture, but there is so much more to it. The huge amount of media coverage we have generated here, and the ensuing public debate, has given rise to many conversations that wouldn’t otherwise have been had around animals, and the ethics of eating them. The ethics of using an animal in ‘art’ has been easily extended to the broader context of animal use. The local paper is full of letters, there have been many radio and TV stories. Whether this event goes ahead or not (and I sincerely hope it doesn’t) a conversation has been started and many people will be thinking a bit more deeply about where their food comes from.

    1. Hi Karen, thank you for your comment. I’m very glad to hear that the event has been useful as fuel for conversation about the broader picture. I wish you success in the campaigning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *