When bureaucracy jerks you around, is it OK to be a jerk?

by Emrys Westacott

Recently, I was waiting to board an American Airlines flight from Boston to Rochester, when, along with ten of my fellow passengers, I was summoned to the desk in front of the boarding gate. There we learned, by listening intently to what the AA gate agent told the first passenger in line, that we were being bumped from the flight, that AA would try to find alternative flights for us, and that we would each receive a voucher worth $250, redeemable on AA bookings, valid for one year.

Of the eleven victims, reactions were mixed. Most of us chunteringly but passively accepted our fate. But two or three individuals kicked up nasty. One woman smacked her hand on the counter in front of the agent and declared loudly, “Listen. I’m not interested in your excuses. I am getting on that plane!” A tall man with an incredulous sneer fixed on his face continually informed both the AA agents and the rest of us for the next half hour that the reason they were giving for why we had to be bumped was “bullshit, pure bullshit.”

He seemed to have a point. The reason provided for why we were being bumped was that, given its required fuel load, this particular plane would be too heavy with us on board. I’m not sure how many passengers actually boarded the plane, but I would guess it was fewer than sixty; so the ratio of bumped to boarded seemed remarkably high. We all assumed that AA had simply overbooked the flight, as airlines regularly do in order to make more money, and the agents were following a script which involved feeding us a bogus justification. “Safety regulations require that…..” is always going to sound more acceptable than “Our concern to maximize profits has led us to….”

Asked how they chose whom to bump, the supervising agent said the selection was based on who had checked in last. This, too, seemed dubious since some of us had checked in online the night before. He didn’t mention the fact that bumpees were chosen exclusively from the cheap seats, although this is standard practice.

Still, every cloud, etc. Observing the behaviour of the outraged and vocal bumpees, provided an occasion for reflection on the ethics of dealing with bureaucracy when one feels one is being in some way wronged or treated badly.

First, we need to make a basic distinction between (a) a jobsworth, and (b) institutional bullshit.

The word “jobsworth” is derived from the expression, “it’s more than my job’s worth” which means that a certain action is not one that the speaker is authorized to perform. The term is commonly used in Britain. A jobsworth is typically a low-level employee who insists on enforcing a policy even when doing so is contrary to common sense or common humanity. The worst kind of jobsworths even take pleasure in exercising the little power they have to inconvenience others. An example would be, say, a museum doorman who won’t let a mother whose toddler desperately needs to use the toilet back into the museum because the museum closes at 5:00 and it’s now 5:01.

Jobsworths are typically viewed with a degree of contempt. They are seen as either obtuse, willfully uncooperative, or both. In dealing with an obstructionist jobsworth, one needs to distinguish between

  • the pragmatic question: what is the best way to get what I want?
  • the ethical question: how should I behave towards this person?

So far as the pragmatic question is concerned (if we put aside bribery, which is normal in some societies but taboo in others) the two main strategies people employ are wheedling cajolery and angry abuse combined with threats. Typically, they appear in that order. One can sympathize with the sort of frustration at intransigent, boneheaded officialdom that leads people into using abusive language. We’ve all been there. But strategically speaking, it is invariably futile. Hurling abuse at officialdom as a method of persuasion is like trying to untie a knot by pulling hard on a loose end.

But what about the ethical question? Is it morally acceptable to become uncivil when frustrated by a jobsworth? Some will defend incivility, at least in particularly egregious cases, on the grounds that the jobsworth deserves it. He’s being a jerk; the abuse is his punishment. One could also defend incivility on utilitarian grounds. First, just conceivably, receiving abuse might make the jobsworth less pigheaded in future (not very likely, perhaps, but one never knows). Second, hurling some abuse provides cathartic relief; and it may also give the jobsworth a perverse sort of pleasure since the more angry his victim becomes, the more he feels his power. So given the jobsworth’s intransigence as a premise, abuse could be the action in that circumstance that promotes the greatest happiness. Jeremy Bentham would approve.

Against all of that, though, is a simple, powerful argument against incivility in most situations: namely, that the world would be a better place if, other than in exceptional circumstances, people always spoke in a civil manner and treated each other with respect. The planet is not suffering from an excess of civility. The more of us model civility and respect for others in our social interactions, the more likely it is that this will become the general norm. This does not rule out direct, forcefully expressed criticism. I can politely tell someone that I think they are acting unreasonably without swearing at them or calling them names.

Let’s now consider what I termed “institutional bullshit.” Here, one is frustrated or inconvenienced by the policies or practices of some institution (e.g. a business, a hospital, a government agency) as these are explained and laid down by paid representatives of that institution. This was the situation I found myself in at Logan airport.

Again, we should distinguish between the pragmatic question (what will work best?) and the ethical question (how should I behave?). The woman who was berating the agents and insisting that she would board the plane come hell or high water clearly hoped that kicking up an almighty fuss would help her cause. She was wrong in thinking that it would get her on the plane. But it did help her a little bit. Although several of us arrived at the counter before her, one of the agents offered to deal with her immediately, presumably to shorten the time that they would have to listen to her ranting. So the squeaky wheel did get a little bit of grease.

Individuals are clearly entitled to stand up and fight for their rights when they believe that they are being badly treated by some bureaucracy. Sometimes resistence is futile; but often it is effective. People who challenge bureaucrats successfully are typically proud of their victories and of sticking it to the man. Occasionally, those who protest with great vigour benefit themselves at the expense of others, as in the case of the woman mentioned above who was, in effect, allowed to queue jump. It is probably more common, though, that such people benefit us all in the long run by calling attention to bureaucratic idiocies or wrongdoings, and by pressurizing institutions to change the way they do things. Troublesomeness occurs on a spectrum from minor irritant to freedom fighter; and there are times when it may legitimately be counted as a virtue.

But what about the ethical issue of how one should treat representatives of the offending institution? These are not necessarily jobsworths who could be more helpful if they so chose. They are paid employees who in many situations have little choice but to follow rules laid down by higher authorities. Safety regulations prohibit overloading planes; the airlines are legally obliged to obey these regulations; and the airline employees are required to make sure the rules are followed. In that sort of case, being abusive to people who are simply doing their job seems obviously wrong.

Sometimes, though, the “rules” the employees are following are just institutional policies that may themselves be unjustified. For example, I imagine that airlines advise their agents regarding what they should and should not say when explaining why passengers are being bumped. It would certainly be refreshing if a boarding gate agent were to make the following announcement: “In order to maximize profits, Air Avaricious routinely overbooks its flights. This has happened today, so we will have to bump eleven passengers from among those who paid less for their tickets. Passengers flying first class and business class needn’t worry. Here, as elsewhere, your wealth protects you against inconvenience.” But I don’t imagine this person would keep their job for long.

One could, of course, take a hard moral line and insist that employees of institutions only ever tell the public the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; and if they are ever required to do otherwise, they should refuse and take the consequences. But this is an ideal taken from the handbook for martyred saints. People need jobs. And while there are certainly things that decent people should refuse to do, paying lip service to a bit of institutional bullshit in order to pay the rent and feed the family is not normally grounds for moral condemnation. Is it fair to ask a man to say something when his salary depends on him not saying it? Sometimes, to be sure. But not when the salary is low, and what goes unsaid is merely a familiar critique of bog standard institutional bullshit.

Observing the uncivil, bordering on abusive, behaviour of some of the passengers towards the airline employees, my sympathies were decidedly with the latter. As far as one could tell, they were simply carrying out their employer’s policy. Registering complaints about that policy is perfectly in order, both at the time and later. But the fact that I am being jerked around by an institution does not give me a license to behave like a jerk in the sense of becoming aggressive and disrespectful toward individuals who are not themselves responsible for the policies they are required to carry out. The proper target of ire in most cases like this is the institution and those who determine its policies, not the underlings with whom one has face-to-face interactions.

Among people whose daily employment involves dealing with the general public, tales abound of how often they encounter ignorance, stupidity, aggression, disrespect, abuse, and various sorts of objectionable behaviour. I imagine the American Airlines agents whom I observed trying to deal with irate passengers will have felt their own need to vent their feelings later that day to colleagues, family and friends. Yet to their credit, they remained civil and professional throughout. Keeping one’s temper, even one’s good humour, under duress is not a trivial virtue, although, sadly, it’s one that many people working in customer service are called upon to exercise often.