United Airlines, the bureaucratic voice, “contracts of carriage” and airline economics (PART 1)


David Dao, the now famous United Airlines passenger,
forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight


Herein some comments on “the bureaucratic voice”,
with comments tomorrow on “contracts of carriage” and airline economics


13 April 2017 (Moscow, Russia) – It has been a challenge trying to keep up with the string of changes and reversals over the now infamous United Airlines flight in which members of Chicago Aviation Security forcibly removed David Dao, a customer who refused to give up his seat when asked, who ended up bloody and dazed after the encounter.


The mind, of course, reels with all of the choices available to United’s management in this instance: offering a higher compensation figure until someone agreed, transporting the crew to Louisville on another plane, acceding to Dao’s request that, as a doctor, he had patients to see the following morning and deserved priority, or simply waiting. But once this became a display of power and authority, they were left with no choice but violence.


In a series of notes, emails, and news conferences over the last few days Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines, offered conflicting explanations of the events and defenses of both his employees and law enforcement. The emails and internal memos ended up on Twitter where their contents were roundly excoriated.


And then FINALLY, in a fourth  statement released today, Munoz accepted full responsibility and apologized to Dao, and all the passengers on that flight, and to the general public … even throwing in full refunds to all the passengers on that flight.


But two of the more amusing news items:


– Customers are trying to stop Munoz from getting a $500,000 bonus linked to customer satisfaction surveys that all United passengers receive

–  just last month, Munoz was named “Communicator of the Year” by the trade publication, PR Week, which has now said in a press release “it would not give him that honor today given the horror of this week”.


And mind you I am writing this from Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow where a non-smiling/ no warm atmosphere/“what are you looking at?!” ambience dominates.  And that’s just the security staff, airline personnel and shop keepers. Where people smoke in the bathrooms because smoking is no longer allowed anywhere in public establishments. Where some shops do not display prices, seeming to pull prices out of the air based on where they assume you are from. Ah, Mother Russia.


What grabbed me in all of this United Airlines stuff was the first series of emails from Munoz, and public statements from United, which were … how to put it? … works of art; a triumph of the willingness to pass the buck. Misstating objective facts and shifting the responsibility onto the passenger, David Dao. A sample from one of Munoz’s first emails:


As you will read, the situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers was politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Officers to help.


What struck me as I read the email is how a careful and consistent use of syntax, grammar, and diction is marshaled to make a series of points both subtle and unsubtle. Colin Dickey, a grammatarian of the first order, noted in a series of comments on Twitter that it was a “master class in the use of the passive voice to avoid responsibility” and that it “highlighted its use of language to shift the blame on to the victim”.


I like to consider myself a wordsmith … yes, a legend in my own mind … but I defer to folks like Colin Dickey and Oliver Kamm (the author of a delightful book Accidence Will Happen: A Recovering Pedantic’s Guide to English Language and Style).  But even I can recognize the larger world we now find ourselves in, where corporate and government bureaucracies rely heavily on language to shape our perception. Munoz’s email relies heavily on the passive voice to evade culpability, but he also employs a host of other rhetorical moves that collude to put the blame on the man who was assaulted and carried out on a stretcher. Like a well-trained bureaucrat, Munoz used an array of syntactical choices in a predictable, quantifiable, and deliberate manner, and we should  just recognize it for what it is.


When George Orwell wrote “Politics and the English Language” in 1946, he began by arguing that the English language was “in a bad way,” decaying decadently due to jargon, cliché, and imprecise thought. His examples of poor writing exhibit two main faults:


  • “staleness of imagery” and
  • a “lack of precision”


Said Orwell:


The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.


Orwell saw the writing of his day as consisting in “gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug,” and saw its decline as directly traceable to its lack of imagination.


Au contraire, mon ami! I would argue that today it is just the opposite. It is not in decline; it’s vibrant and flowering in multiple directions. For all its shortcomings, social media has allowed for a wide range of inventiveness of linguistic expression – look at the dizzying speed at which slang moves on the Internet – and is a testament to the continued vitality of language’s ability to capture the emotional crazy quilt of daily life.


I maintain Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr accounts and I stand in awe. The words that surround us every day influence the words we use. Since so much of the written language we see is now on the screens of our computers, tablets, and smartphones, language now evolves partly through our interaction with technology. An alphabet soup of acronyms, abbreviations, and neologisms has grown up around technologically mediated communication to help us be understood.


Ah, but as users become more creative in crafting language to reflect new kinds of expression, bureaucrats get more creative in using that expression to hide the levers of power. In Orwell’s time political writing was bad because it never strayed from the party line:


It is broadly true that political writing is bad writing…. Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.


In the twenty-first century, political writing is bad because it spews bullshit in new directions, always expanding its inventiveness and the reach of its perfidy. The success of politicians like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump come from their ability to reject the party line in favor of … let’s say … “surprising” constructions of speech. But as Oliver Kamm noted “these creations drink from the same poisoned well of dull thought”.


One thing has not changed: political speech continues to be, as it was for Orwell, largely the defense of the indefensible.  We think of “Orwellian” as a shorthand for dystopia, but a more accurate definition might be a form of language whose fidelity is to institutional power at the expense of objective truth: Trump has showed us to expect it to be constantly in flux, particularly in a landscape where political power is itself nebulous.


It is brilliant stuff (sarcasm!) and it shows what Elyakim Rubinstein and Colin Dickey call “the bureaucratic voice”.  The bureaucratic voice makes use of both active and passive constructions, but its purpose is uniform: to erase and efface any active agent on the part of the bureaucracy. Reading through the Munoz emails, numerous sentences leap out-their syntax varies, but their purpose does not.


First, let’s erase “cause”. Here is Munoz’s description of the start of the incident:


On Sunday, April 9, after United Express Flight 3411 was fully boarded, United’s gate agents were approached by crewmembers that were told they needed to board the flight.


Setting aside the passengers for a second, in this sentence there are two named actors: the gate agents and the crewmembers. You might expect, then, that this all started when the crewmembers approached the gate agents and told them they needed to board the flight. However, a closer reading of the syntax implies this is not the case; the crewmembers themselves “were told they needed to board the flight.” Who told them? The sentence does not make this clear, even though it is this unnamed actor, presumably a supervisor, who set this entire chain of events in motion. Deliberately pushed back as far off the stage as possible, there is no one here to responsibly hold accountable for subsequent events!


Munoz repeatedly makes reference to established procedures:


Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this.


Here we have what seems to be a nice use of the active voice: we have actors (“our employees”) and they are doing something specific. But the figures responsible for establishing procedure are nowhere to be found. Whenever possible, bureaucratic style will shift responsibility to immutable rules and directives that appear spontaneously from the ether.


When bureaucratic agency is absolutely unavoidable it will be couched in a simpering use of adverbs to clear any wrongdoing: “We politely asked” a customer to deplane, to whom “we approached… to explain apologetically,” and so forth. Only with the utmost reluctance does the state ever act, and even then it does so patiently, politely, apologetically.


Add to this the free use of obvious falsehoods. Munoz states that employees told Dao “was being denied boarding,” when in fact he was already sitting on the plane. Munoz claims employees were following United’s “involuntary denial of boarding process,” but their “Denied Boarding Compensation rules” (it is here; I read the whole damn thing) cover oversold flights, and this flight was not oversold or overbooked.


NOTE: I will have more comments in Part 2 on “contracts of carriage” and the economics of the airline industry.


Ahhhhhh. But in contrast, Dao himself is portrayed with a dynamic and active voice. The passenger “defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers” and he “raised his voice and refused to comply with crew member instructions,” and he “repeatedly declined to leave,” and after he was forcibly removed, “he continued to resist-running back onto the aircraft in defiance of both our crew and security officials.”


THE TAKE-AWAY IS OBVIOUS: while the bureaucratic voice works to present governments and corporations as placid, apologetic, and unmovable, it also works to make their victims as active and vital as possible. The point, of course, is to make clear that a victim like Dao did this to himself. Munoz employs the passive voice at key moments to make it clear that there are no other actors in this drama other than Dao. In one spectacular sentence, Munoz writes of Dao:


He was approached a few more times after that in order to gain his compliance to come off the aircraft, and each time he refused and became more and more disruptive and belligerent.


The bastard had it coming! There is clearly a series of confrontations happening here, yet he is the only individual identified in the entire sentence. No one did the approaching and no one tried to gain his compliance; instead, the passenger just sat there on the plane, becoming more and more belligerent all by himself.


And then the “coup de grâce”:


Our agents were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight. He repeatedly declined to leave.


The phrase, “left with no choice” is calculated and deliberate, and every rhetorical move of the preceding paragraphs is leading up to this moment. The bureaucratic state never acts of its own volition; it is always reactionary, and it always acts because the victim leaves it no choice. The effect of United’s emails is the actions of the airline and its employees was out of their hands.


And we see it in all sorts of news stories. When descriptions of violence are unavoidable, they will emphatically be in passive constructions: dissidents “were executed,” their bodies “were later found” and subsequently “were buried.” For me it is the tortured and reprehensible term “officer-involved shooting.”


I am writing a “long read” on the paranoid style of American policing and during my research I  kept coming across that term, “officer-involved shooting”, which crept into the lexicon only recently (around 1989, according to Google’s ngram viewer – a fabulous tool for writers) and quickly became a hallmark of American policing.


It exists for one reason only: to obfuscate the circumstances surrounding police killings of civilians, whether justified or not, and to efface any agency among law enforcement for the use of deadly force. The term “officer-involved shooting” is a perfect example of bureaucratic speech: it invariably is paired with an active verb (“an officer-involved shooting occurred”) and yet the entire purpose of the construction is to imbue the scene with passivity. Police did not kill anyone; a shooting just occurred and it happened to involve officers. There is no actor in an officer-involved shooting, and not even any real actions. We don’t even technically know who was shot, only that an officer was somehow involved. Colin Dickey has a whole piece on this and quoting just one part:


An entire syntactical arrangement consisting of a subject (“police”), a verb (“shot”), and an object (“a civilian”) are transmuted into a noun (“shooting”) with a compound adjective (“officer-involved”) attached. It’s almost as if nothing took place at all.
Not only is it venal, you can tell a great deal simply by the syntax of sentences in which it’s employed: “Police chased the suspect into an alleyway; once cornered, the suspect appeared to draw a weapon, and at that point an officer-involved shooting took place.” Agency is granted to both the police and the victim through a series of dynamic verbs, creating a sense of action and suspense, right up until the moment of the shooting, when all agency mysteriously vanishes.


God, the awkwardness of the construction is amazing – the strange wrenching of the sentence from the active voice to this bizarre passivity. Yes: all these are hallmarks of the bureaucratic voice, in that it will go to such lengths to avoid culpability that it will distort and pervert language itself.





We should not be doing law enforcement’s PR work for free. Clarity should prevail. Readers need to be trained to understand that, when it comes to bureaucratic sources, ugliness in prose is usually not entirely aesthetic, but usually is covering up something far more egregious than style.


Me? I am a cynic. Most of American journalism is compromised by bureaucratic style. The purpose of the bureaucratic voice is less to shape our thoughts or how we see the external world, but to reward incuriosity. The citizen who reads of an “officer-involved shooting” is invited to not think too hard about things and fill in whatever preconceived notions they may already hold about law enforcement, and the use of violence.


United’s use of language in its email was not to shape our perception. Watching the cell phone videos of the assault has, for most people, the immediate effect of provoking outrage and awakening a desire for justice. Social media was in full battle mode. So the purpose of United’s bureaucratic speech was to dull these responses. A feeble attempt to say “hey, your outrage is not worth it, it’s fine to go back to what you were doing, that it’s best to move along and mind your own business. The guy had it coming”.


Why was United Airlines so unapologetic on social media? Why did it take so long for Munoz to apologize, sound contrite? When everyone gets mad at Pepsi, Pepsi has to apologize because it is very easy to not drink Pepsi. One must affirmatively choose to drink Pepsi; not drinking Pepsi is the default option.


Airlines? The major American airlines, though, do not need to do anything to convince people to fly with them, because they all merged and consolidated until there were just four firms controlling the vast majority of domestic flights, and they have determined that it is in their collective best interest not to seriously compete with one another.


This is called oligopoly. What does United care if the internet is mad at it? The airlines divvied up the sky between themselves, and if you live or work in United territory, at some point you’ll face the real “choice” offered to consumers in a post-consolidation industry: flying with them, flying a more time-consuming and circuitous route with some other, probably equally horrible airline (if such a route is available), or not flying anywhere.


But United Airlines did get its butt kicked …eventually …and there is a story there, too.


In Part 2 tomorrow: “contracts of carriage” and airline economics

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