John Lui

One man's right is another's wrong

Using Knee Defenders in planes is a thoughtless act, not an issue of consumer rights

The Knee Defender belongs to that category of handy items that you might want to take with you, if you were a sociopath.

The Defenders are plastic clips that you put on your airplane seat tray to stop the person in front of you from fully reclining, so giving you more space to stretch out your long, morally impaired legs.

This handy little gadget is something the modern Entitled Twit might have in his travel bag, along with the phone with the shrieky ringtone and the Why Foreigners Who Don't Speak English Are Just Being Difficult book.

A few weeks ago, according to news reports, a Knee Defender user was shocked - shocked! - to discover that the passenger seated in front of him did not fancy sitting upright while everyone else was reclined.

She objected strenuously (i.e. by flinging a drink at him), and the altercation caused the flight to be diverted from Denver to Chicago, where both passengers were given the boot. I picture them in one of those airport golf carts, being driven away from the pier. I wonder who sat behind whom.

In interviews following the incident, both the user and the seller of the device sounded very persuasive, because they played the anti- airline card. Many travellers dislike airlines for how they treat passengers not as human beings, but as lumpy meat packets.

Airlines are the real enemy, said the seat justice warriors, and the Knee Defender is how the little guy fights back.

Reading that, I thought, "Right on, consumer avenger!"

Then they lost my support, because they brought up the matter of rights. As in, I have a right to that space; the airlines do not have a right to stack me like a Chinese New Year kumquat, and so on.

When talk of rights enters the room, it sucks out all the oxygen and other rules of behaviour, such as Do Unto Others, shrivel and die.

For example, when drivers think only of rights, other road users get squashed. Governments and armies who fancy a bit of land that other people have settled on call up ancient rights. And navies think they have the right to name ships anything they like, no matter how offensive it is to other nations.

The older I get, the more allergic I have become to rights talk, because too often it is uttered with supreme self-importance by winners, backed up by superior hardware: Cars versus pedestrians and bicyclists, Knee Defenders versus people seated in front who have no idea why their seats can't work properly.

When you are sitting pretty, with a smirk on your face and all the marbles in your hands, preaching about your rights is in poor taste. And by the way, there is no way you can use something like the Knee Defender in a responsible manner, as the seller seems to suggest. How is something like that to be used responsibly? It was designed to infringe. The only way I can think of it being used responsibly is if it were left in the bag.

Also, on the matter of deserving more privileges because of height, as the user argued. In that case, I, as a smaller person, would like my height-based fare discount privileges, please.

At first, I thought I had gone crazy reading the news reports on the flight fracas, which took the tone of discussing it as a fairness issue. It is not. It is a jerk issue.

If I had been the journalist interviewing the user, I would have found it hard not to put my pen down and start weeping.

Because in a world where Knee Defenders were in common use, there would be Defenders for everything - the onus would be on me to defend myself against the thoughtlessness of others, not on others to stop being thoughtless in general.

For starters, I would need a cellphone signal blocker in my bag to defend my ears from cinema yakkers. I would need a N95 face mask daily to defend myself against the germs of sick passengers who insist on using the MRT. I would need a bigger mask to stop street vloggers and photographers from taking images of me for social media. I would have to pay my mobile provider to block telemarketers.

On airplanes, why stop at knees? How about an Ear Defender, a spray that knocks out bawling babies, or an Elbow Defender, a fence that stops neighbours from taking my armrest? I should shut up now and file patents.

In that world, I would have to leave my flat togged out like a SWAT member. I would think that everyone would be out to get me, and I would not be far wrong.

johnlui@sph.com.sg