It’s Not Me, It’s You

It looks like nearly everyone in America is against the use of cell phones on airplanes.

And that’s why it’s inevitable.

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission voted to continue its efforts to remove the nationwide prohibition on in-flight calls by airline passengers.  The ban has long been in effect for technical reasons—namely, to prevent a cell phone from jumbling the pilot’s communications with the control tower.  However, the FCC now assures us that recent technological advances have rendered such concerns “obsolete.”

(Should the FCC lift the ban, it would fall to the FAA and individual airlines to set their own rules.)

Accordingly, the phones-on-planes debate now hinges entirely on the question of courtesy:  Just because we can make phone calls during our flight, does that mean that we should?

A supermajority of the American public says no.  A recent Quinnipiac poll found 59 percent of respondents opposed the proposition of making in-flight calls permissible, with 30 percent in favor.  Similar surveys have yielded similar results.  Notably, even a majority of those aged 18-29—that is, the folks most passionately tethered to their technological toys—thinks yapping at 30,000 feet is a bad idea.

So long as this is the case, let us examine precisely what we mean when we say we would like our airplane flights to be phone-free.

Most of all, we would very desperately wish to avoid a long plane ride with a fellow passenger who doesn’t know when to shut up—the person who is completely indifferent to the considerations of others and can only comprehend the world of himself.  (See John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.)

We have all encountered such cretins at one point or another, be it on the bus, in a movie theater or across the table at Thanksgiving.  The last thing we want to do is encourage them.

The complication is as follows:  If these social pariahs are best characterized for their lack of self-awareness, how can we be so certain that we, ourselves, are not among them?

“Have you ever noticed that anyone who’s driving slower than you is an idiot?” George Carlin once asked.  “And anyone driving faster than you is a maniac?”

Ain’t it the truth?  All the trouble in the world—it’s never our own doing, because we’re perfect little angels.  It’s those wackaloons on the other side of the room who are mucking everything up and making our lives a living heck.

In point of fact, we aren’t against using cell phones on airplanes.  We’re against everyone else using cell phones on airplanes.

Rest assured that I feel your pain as potently as anyone.  Like most of today’s young whippersnappers, I avoid old-fashioned phone conversations whenever humanly possible, and doubly so in public.

And when the regrettable moment arises in which I must conduct a verbal exchange through a machine welded to the side of my face, I make an honest attempt to be audible only to the person on the other end of my Android, rather than to everyone in a 200-yard radius.

Why can’t all of my fellow primates be so considerate and cognizant of their surroundings?  Why isn’t the rest of society as wonderful as I am?

But we must be straight with ourselves:  We want to maintain cell phone bans in confined spaces like airplanes to rein in our society’s most irritating citizens, but never to rein in ourselves, since it never occurs to us that we require a reining-in the first place.

Yet the moment will inevitably come when you realize there’s a very, very important call you forgot to make before takeoff and, doggone it, it just can’t wait until landing!  What do you say to the flight attendant who reminds you that it’s against the rules?  “Don’t worry, I’ll be really quick”?  “I promise I’ll keep my voice down—I’m not one of those people”?  Are you certain about that, or should we take a poll?

Bear in mind, in other words, that the regulations you so earnestly endorse, in order to keep everyone else in line, will not be suspended in your own case.  That when you remove your neighbor’s privilege to yak his way from one end of the continent to the other, you are also removing your own.

Is our culture mature enough to willingly make that trade-off, to sacrifice our own inalienable right to chat for the sake of the greater, silent good?

I am not yet prepared to make that call.

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