Having flown to Boston this past Thanksgiving, I now find myself concerned with words. The alert first sounded in the airport at Washington when Eastern Airlines announced that it had "found itself" in an overbooked situation. Since I "found myself" at the end of a long line for boarding passes, I concluded that I might "find myself" still at the airport while the rest of my family was sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner. In that event, I would probably find my sister homicidal and myself close to suicidal.
As it happened, enough passengers were bribed (a free flight anywhere in the United States) to surrender their seats, and I made it aboard the plane. My attention then turned to the newspaper, where I read about the troubles of E.F. Hutton, the giant brokerage. Its president, Robert Rittereiser, had issued a statement.
"The board's decision to pursue an additional capital infusion or a strategic combination comes at a time when we have performed well overall, and continue to grow in certain markets," Rittereiser said. "A strategic combination," I take it, is a merger, and a "capital infusion" must have something to do with cash -- probably the need for a whole lot. I can make sense out of that. What I can't make sense out of is how a company that has "performed well overall" is so desperate that it needs a loan or a merger with another company.
Here then, from Hutton, was the same language, in spirit, that was employed by Eastern -- the disingenuous use of words that causes responsibility simply to evaporate. Eastern had overbooked. It had done so deliberately, knowing that some people wouldn't make it to the airport on time or would make other plans. The thinking of the airline was as cold as leftover turkey: Eastern would not risk having an empty seat on the flight. Instead, it would let the passenger take the risk of not being able to get on.
But is this what Eastern announced? No sirree. Instead, it pretended the overbooking just happened. It was no one's fault. Eastern "found itself" unable to board all its ticketed passengers. In the same way, E.F. Hutton found itself short of cash -- even though it had "performed well." Senior management could not be held accountable.
So, who could be held accountable? Less-senior management. A merger would mean duplication of jobs and, therefore, layoffs and dismissals. Rittereiser said, "Senior management is mindful of the concerns employes have at times like these. We will act in good faith to preserve and enhance our human assets -- our most important assets -- in whatever course we take."
"Human assets!" The term is enough to make George Orwell come out of the grave. It was Orwell who wrote brilliantly on how language is abused by governments to obscure the truth. But the term "human assets" doesn't obscure the truth as much as it obscures responsibility for it. It puts people on a par with computers, which are also assets, and lets them know what might be coming. If "rose is a rose is a rose," then asset is only an asset when it is an asset. If it's not, then it's a liability, and everyone knows what happens to liabilities. They get fired -- so sorry and, of course, no fault of the company's.
Sometimes responsibility is shirked by the asserting of it. President Reagan did that when he took full responsibility for the Beirut bombing that killed 239 Americans. Trouble was, Reagan was not responsible. He was president, not captain of the guard. He was responsible for the policy that put the Americans in Beirut in the first place, but for that he did not ask to be held responsible. Instead, he took responsibility for the negligence of others. The effect was the same as if no one had taken responsibility. Since the president asserted responsibility, those who really were responsible got a version of a presidential pardon.
Governments are wonderfully adept at shirking responsibility. Washington, D.C., for instance, was recently ordered to pay more than $2 million in awards brought by suits against its jail system. Juries found the city negligent, which is another way of saying responsible. But the awards will not come from the pockets of the officials who were really responsible. They will come from an entity called the city treasury, which happens to hold some of my money. In other words, a citizen who was not responsible for the conditions of the jails will be held responsible. And city officials who were responsible will not, really, be held responsible at all.
Asserting the word "policy" is yet another way of avoiding responsibility. A restaurant will say its "policy" is not to allow substitutions -- no carrots for peas, for instance -- as if human beings, the owners, were not the ones who set the policy in the first place. I'm sure if I bothered to call Eastern Airlines about overbooking, it, too, would say something about "policy," as if it were talking about an act of God or its high-tech equivalent, a computer error.
It was precisely Eastern Airlines' declaration of non-responsibility (in so many words) that set off my alarm bells. I knew it would be futile to argue with anyone, to beg, to invoke my sister and her homicidal tendencies. She would be waiting at the airport, fuming, recollecting every other time I let her down. In my family, if not at Eastern Airlines, there is never any question of responsibility where I am concerned. The fault, to paraphrase Shakespeare, is never in the stars. It is always in myself.