Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The space you take up

I’m not a big man. Not slim by any means, but not huge either. Therefore I fit the standard range of human-sized things. Clothes and cars and seats on trains and planes: I can get into those. My father was obese and I know a little bit of the everyday difficulties he faced, but it’s hard to know what it’s like without first-hand knowledge. The closest I’ve come is on long-haul flights.

Last January for instance I sat for twelve hours next to a very large gentleman. In such extreme prolonged proximity you cannot fail to observe. It’s not voyeurism. You notice above all the trouble with sitting, the fact that the person is wedged. (It’s only then you realise just how much room you have in the much maligned economy class to actually shuffle and change positions in your seat, and that you couldn’t do without an inch of that space.) Then it becomes obvious that everything about that little, minutely designed space is designed with a person of your size and under in mind. The position of the tray and the armrests, the size and location of the remote control. Everything has a very precise ergonomics. My seat looks just right. His looks very wrong. But of course it’s not the seat that looks to be the wrong fit. It’s the person.

There is no doubt in my mind that this is the concept of the future because anybody who travels has travelled at times when they feel like they have been paying for half of the passenger next to them … People are generally a little bit bigger, wider and taller than they were 40-50 years ago.

Thus the CEO of Samoa Air, the small commercial airline that for the last few months has been charging its customers on a by-weight basis as opposed to by seat. Of course I rather doubt that they stop taking passengers once they reach, say, 10 tons of cumulative passenger flesh. Surely they still fill the seats as discrete units and according to the maximum available number. But note how the passengers who pay more get the same size seats. At least earlier schemes which involved charging very large passengers for more than one seat had the benefit of netting the travellers in question more space. Whereas the calculation here seems to be based purely on fuel consumption. The more you weigh, the harder it is for us to fly this thing. We don’t know how much more literally to convey that you’re a drag on the entire operation.

The online consumption of such pieces of news require that some people write obnoxious comments below the reports whilst plain-spoken columnists declare the idea to be sensible and the fuss made disproportionate. Call it the internet waltz. My role in this dance would be to supply right-thinking blogger outrage, which is available in seething, reasoned but searing, comical/sarcastic, or fuchsia. However I’m having some difficulty because I’m stuck on that one thought: that it’s when you fly, and on far larger planes than Samoa Air’s, when you’re sitting in row after row with other battery humans, that the question of the space you take in relation to the economy and technology and how we think of one another articulates itself fully. This week’s plain-spoken columnist, cheerful intellectual(*) Kerre McIvor (née Woodham), turned into a nasty little revenge drama:

I'm sure some people support the higher charge for heavier passengers because it's a form of payback. Many people who have travelled, especially in the US, will know the misery of being crushed by a hugely overweight person who has spilled over into your seat.

If pay-as-you-weigh means these seathogs at least get hit in the pocket for the discomfort they inflict on innocent passengers, then that will be some small comfort as you hunt for your remote in the folds of the flesh of the person next to you.

Dear Kerre is not the only exponent of what I would like to call spiteful neoliberalism, but her views aren’t wholly unrepresentative. It starts in the mind of a technocrat with a rough calculation of the resources it takes to care for people of a particular mould – say, those that are considered by some standard or other to be overweight – and then the diffuse feeling of bitterness and misplaced envy that is so characteristic of the present moment takes over. Your commanding more resources than me makes me poorer. Your lack of health makes me poorer. Therefore who you are, the amount of space you take up, must be defined as a moral failing, typically the result of poor lifestyle choices. For which I shouldn’t have to pay.

There is no need for the calculation to be accurate or for the assumptions on which it is based to be true. It’s about finding worth and virtue in belonging to a norm – be it cultural, economic or of body size. Everything about the society we have constructed is best suited to these types. Everything has a very precise ergonomics. And if you don't quite fit then it isn’t the designer's fault. It’s yours.

(*)the excellent descriptor belongs to @kaupapa.