Blind Commitment

November 04, 2016

Multiple Pages
Blind Commitment

You can get angry with machines, especially when you haven’t the faintest idea how they work. They seem to break down out of spite, just at the wrong moment; it is as if they are not completely inanimate but possessed of souls with ill will. I once had a very unreliable car—coincidentally of British manufacture—that knew exactly when I had an appointment that I particularly did not want to miss and chose that moment not to start. My preferred way to repair it, and to teach it a lesson that it would not forget, was to kick it in the radiator grille. It worked only once—I suppose some loose connection was corrected temporarily by the jolt—but at least it relieved my feelings. And after all, feelings are what make life worth living.

Nowadays cars are much more reliable than they were and seem never to break down. But there is a law of the conservation of irritation caused by machines, like that of energy, and if one type of machine won’t irritate you anymore, another will soon step in to fill the breach. 

At the moment it is my computer and the internet messages that irritate me. I keep getting unctuous communications from Airbnb thanking me for being part of their global community. I have never used Airbnb and if I had done so I would certainly not consider myself part of the Airbnb community, any more than I consider myself part of the Fyffes banana community because I once ate a Fyffes banana. If using a service or consuming a product gives us entry into a community, we are all members of thousands of communities.

“What is most odious about the message from Airbnb is not its odor of sanctity, but its odor of sanctimony.”

The word community has a nice, warm, teddy-ursine connotation, of which Airbnb (among many other organizations) is obviously trying to take advantage; but a sense of community is not in itself praiseworthy. It all rather depends on what the community in question is a community of. Not all purposes are good, and it is easy to imagine a community of evildoers. Communities are easier to create by fear than by love.

Another message from Airbnb appeals to fear. It demanded that I sign up to an agreement if I wished to remain within the Airbnb community:

You commit to treat everyone—regardless of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age—with respect, and without judgment or bias.

As a private service, of course, Airbnb has the perfect right to demand almost anything it likes of its customers, who, after all, have themselves the right not to use its services if they do not like the conditions imposed. A service such as Airbnb could, if it so wished, run a letting service exclusively for philatelists or people who believe that Earth is flat, or indeed for any other group it chooses. If there is no freedom to discriminate, there is no freedom tout court—which, of course, is not to say that all forms of discrimination are morally admirable or justified.

What is most odious about the message from Airbnb is not its odor of sanctity, but its odor of sanctimony: the very odor that, oddly enough, seems to have become more pervasive in our society since the decline of real religious belief. One can just imagine how good about themselves, to use the terminology of psychobabble, the framers of the commitment felt. Their words were reminiscent of Mr. Pecksniff’s introduction to Mrs. Todgers of his two daughters:

“Mercy and Charity,” said Mr. Pecksniff. “Charity and Mercy. Not unholy names, I hope?”

What does it mean to commit to treat everyone with respect, and without bias or judgment? Does it mean that one is committed to welcoming necrophiliacs into one’s home, or people like Dennis Nilsen, who liked to watch television with the corpses of the people he had killed sitting next to him (before cutting them up and flushing them down the lavatory)? Is this not perhaps a taste (or should I say orientation) worthy of at least mildly negative judgment?

Did the framers of this oleaginous “commitment” mean that the owners of accommodations should take no notice if their potential lodgers are satanists, or members of the Ku Klux Klan, or Black Panthers, or soldiers of ISIS? Everyone means everyone, not le tout-Paris.

It is true that Airbnb asks potential lodgers to sign the same declaration, but not everyone is like George Washington, that is to say incapable of telling a lie. It does not take a very high degree of sophistication to agree to such a commitment with mental reservations or an outright determination to flout it.

Is there anyone in the world who is without biases, who goes out into the world every day as if it had been remade overnight, as if he had no previous experience to guide him? Would anyone in a crime-ridden slum have precisely the same thoughts at the approach of a tottering old lady as of that of a loping young man (even if the majority of loping young men would do him no harm)?

Now, either the list of characteristics against which one is supposed not to be biased is exhaustive or it is not. If it is exhaustive it means that bias on grounds such as intelligence, level of education, political opinions, physical comeliness, and indeed on an infinite variety of other characteristics is permissible. If, on the other hand, it is not exhaustive, the implication is that bias on any grounds whatever is impermissible. But the totally unbiased person, if he could exist at all (which is very doubtful), would be as vulnerable as a hermit crab without a shell.

In short, the ridiculous “commitment” is demanded not because it will do any good, but because it exhibits the virtue of those demanding it. Those who demur from such a commitment, not because they want to commit acts of racial discrimination but because they object to a world of saccharine bullying and moral exhibitionism by commercial enterprises, will nonetheless find themselves condemned for bigotry. Most people will sign the commitment not from conviction, but simply for convenience. Nevertheless, signing up to what we do not, and probably cannot, believe undermines our moral and intellectual probity, even if only fractionally. Truth, like humans, can be executed by a thousand cuts.

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