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United Airlines Exposes Our Twisted Idea of Dignity

Decent treatment should be a right of all humans, not just paying customers.

To each according to his wallet?

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The outrage surrounding United Airlines’ brutal treatment of a customer has made one thing crystal clear: The story isn’t really about airline travel, overbooking policies or even consumer rights. It’s about the nature of dignity itself, and it doesn’t reflect well on the society it has so preoccupied.

The algorithm that decided to bump Dr. David Dao from an overbooked flight was trained to find the “lowest value customer” to inconvenience -- a coach passenger, naturally, not a business traveler, but also a passenger who had paid less than others and wasn’t a rewards member. In addition, the algorithm considered the immediate cost to the airline of bumping someone, which meant avoiding families, or requiring an overnight stay, to save reimbursement fees.

This all makes sense. Companies build algorithms to protect their interests, which in this case are profits. It illustrates how, in the age of big data, the customer has gone from an unknowable chap who might expect standard good treatment to a sized-up marketing category that can easily become expendable. Farewell to quaint sayings such as “the customer is always right.” We have been separated by our potential to generate income, and we can expect no more than what we’re worth.

There are countless examples like this online. For example, the websites of various companies -- including Capital One Financial Corp. -- have used data from people’s computers to help determine their value as customers and decide what specific products or perks to offer them. Some companies even size you up when you call customer service numbers. If you’re high-value, you get connected to an agent quickly. If not, you can stay on hold indefinitely.

It’s the consumer reality, and it’s not pretty -- especially when people start to accept ideas like making online privacy available only to those willing and able to pay for it.

Now consider the response to the video of the man being removed from the plane. It was more than mere outrage. It was the collective umbrage of millions of middle-class consumers who pay their fees and expect the human dignity that comes with the ticket price. The problem is in that last part: We demand to be treated with dignity by dint of our money, rather than our humanity.

Imagine a different scenario: a public park bench, with a young black man sitting on it, defiantly refusing to leave at the request of security guards. A police officer is called, rudely tells him to go, then yanks him from the bench and drags him off the premises, bruising his head and bloodying his mouth in the process.

I’d wager this would not have sparked the same outrage on social media. It would have been seen as a young ruffian disobeying direct orders from authority figures. The consumer context matters: He hadn’t paid for that seat, and even if nobody explained why he had to leave, he had nothing more than a human right to be there.

We have fallen for this paradigm shift, in every conversation about Dr. Dao’s consumer rights, the exact definition of “boarding the plane” and whether he has grounds to sue. The underlying assumption is that we deserve dignity, but only if we've paid for it.

This is short-sighted. It won’t serve us well when we’ve all lost our jobs to the oncoming robot army. Until we demand good treatment of everyone -- not just middle class ticket holders -- we will be contributing to a system that commodifies our dignity.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Cathy O'Neil at cathy.oneil@gmail.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net

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