Three economically maximized, dimensionally minimized seats are stacked tightly side by side. Four armrests are to be distributed between six elbows. The two outermost armrests are undisputedly the domain of the two outermost elbows; one belonging to the window seat passenger, one belonging to the aisle seat passenger. Battle for control of the two interior armrests, each on either side of the middle seat, is an unofficial dispute. No airline or regulatory agency has formalized an armrest sharing policy. Members of the cabin crew will not make a round admonishing window or aisle occupants for staking claims on one of the two internal armrests — those that would logically be awarded to the middle seat as a means for balancing the scales. “Excuse me, sir. It is the policy of Social Justice Airways that the two middle armrests are solely reserved for the elbows of the middle seat passenger as a form of compensation for drawing the short end of the proverbial stick in our randomized seat distribution matrix.” No, this is a conflict to be resolved by the three passengers themselves. It is an informally governed, socially established code of conduct filling the cracks in a much broader structure of formally and strategically enforced air transit behavioral protocols. It is a social context open for interpretation, and for reinterpretation. Deviants excel at reinterpreting both the formal and the informal protocols.
I am on the plane, which is descending. An entire back catalog of codes and procedures have been documented, recorded, and performed — by myself independently and by the airline, a vast array of regulatory agencies, and governmental departments in Thailand, Myanmar, and those of whichever national passports are represented in the passenger docket — to arrive at this moment: a fully loaded, commercially certified passenger jet sinking through air space above, what I am surprised to observe from my window seat view, is a dry, sparse expanse of the Ayeyarwaddy delta. Both the air space and the land below are presided over by a brutal and oppressive military regime, which, not unlike an unfaithful lover, has promised to change its ways. That regime has granted myself and all other passengers on the jet, including the jet itself, permission to enter its domain and land. Citizens returning home by way of this flight were first granted permission to leave.
My elbows are on neither armrest, having by choice conceded the inner armrest to my neighbor in the middle seat — a man who happily and perhaps a little coarsely occupied not only his share of the armrest but social space beyond, his elbows hovering over my lap. Regarding the armrest wedged between the seat and the body of the plane — undisputedly window domain — and my use of it: I would love for the greater air transit industry to reassess its role (or lack thereof). Window is my preferred seat due to the comfort of being able to lean against the plastic-lined fuselage. But this one static armrest, unable to be stashed into the seat back, imposes itself as a barrier to this one small pleasure of mine, forcing various body contortions or supplemental pillow placements before I am able to establish myself, as I have now, in a cozy posture leaning away from the middle seat elbow overreach, gazing from the window across flat dry land. Seated in an economically maximized dimensionally minimized airplane seat, which would you prefer: an armrest or a few extra inches of unimpeded space between yourself and the smooth airplane body? Have you ever noticed how much space that one little armrest consumes? Only because it is statically locked into a down position, not subject to passengerial governance re: personal up or down preferences, I am certain that some form of official regulation, safety or economical, dictates the presence of what would appear to be an unnecessary intrusion between fuselage and passenger. In such a heavily regulated industry I shudder to imagine the sheer bulk of hurdles to leap or printed documentation to cross-check before implementing such a modification: placing a hinge on the window-adjacent armrest. Yet we are able to construct airplanes, flight-associated infrastructures, and coordinate thousands of daily routes spanning every nation on earth.
In the rare instance I haven’t secured for myself a window or aisle seat and I am stuck in the middle, so to speak, crammed between two more people in life with whom I have little commonality, I never claim an armrest, preferring to avoid physical contact with my nondescript neighbors by crossing my arms over my midsection and leaning my head back for a snooze. The battle for armrest real estate is a battle I rarely engage. The only armrest I put to use as an armrest in a fully occupied passenger jet is that which is aisle-adjacent in the aisle-adjacent seat. But not during food service or clean-up, when the crews are running carts up and down the aisle and occasionally bashing over-extended elbows in the process. Why use armrests when one must govern how far one’s elbows protrude anyhow? This is perhaps the deeper reason behind my reluctance to partake in armrest skirmishes. It’s a social condition demanding too much Self-governance for me to comfortably relax. I sometimes envy those able to indiscriminately settle into place without concern for social considerations such as crowding one’s nondescript neighbors or imposing physical contact with total strangers.
In lieu of disregarding the personal boundaries of individuals in my proximity, I prefer to disregard systems, whether formally enforced by some governing authority or informally defined by social custom. In fact, disobeying systems of behavioral governance is one of my primary purposes in life — if we are born with such things as purpose. And if purpose is not innate, I have made it my purpose to go astray of systematic routines. I am deviant by nature. (This use of the word nature is not in line with the oppositional nature versus nurture construct, but instead allows that the human Self is a blend of inherited and curated traits. Most likely I was born with deviant tendencies and have through time nurtured that deviance, but should I be forced to assume an either/or position I could in both cases claim to be deviant by nature, because I am.) Deviance partially explains my close attention to the functions of structural laws, rules, or social codes. Should I accept these functions or guiding logics in an unseen or unrecognized way — as a vast chunk of humanity tends to do — I would have no cause to deviate. My courses for action would remain confined to routine obedience or blind and violent aggression against vaguely comprehended frustrations. I scrutinize these structures and their guiding logics not merely because they are negative obstructions or impositions for me and my perception of what life is about, but also because they are opportunities to positively go astray. All negative impositions contain within them the potential to be positively circumvented or repurposed.
What is architecture, for example, if not a means for creating opportunities by designing constraints? Buildings are constructed for the purpose of governing behavior, or, to put it a different way: to be used in specific manners. Rooms or enclosures are detailed with specific capacities enabling specific uses. Inhabitants are socially expected to govern their behavior according to formal and informal protocols associated with the intended uses of an architectural space. Shopping malls impose different codes of conduct than meeting rooms or church auditoriums. Although we are contemporary people navigating contemporary environments saturated with formally enforced protocols and procedures, the majority of these protocols and procedures remain culturally imposed. We govern our own social behaviors to a much more refined degree than can be achieved with legal structures or constitutional rights, which is how it should be. While I have the constitutional right to say whatever the fuck I want to say, for the most part, a business owner also should have the right to release me from employment if I spit racial invectives in a professional business setting.
Having the right to speak is different from having the freedom to speak. One must possess a certain awareness, or certain sensitivities, in order to freely express oneself across a spectrum of cultural settings. Being free is a more nuanced condition than the condition of having rights. But in this gap between legal authority and social authority the powers that be take a vested interest in conditioning broader society to mindlessly go along with convention — a social reality manufactured in tandem with architecturally and legally manufactured spaces. Nobody escapes the social conditioning bombardment, initiated at birth and proceeding nonstop on a daily basis thereafter. Freedom, then, is a process of cultivating an ever-refined sense of identity by relieving ourselves of outdated mental programming, therefore living with more intention. Freedom is not the ability to run rampant over any and all constraints without consequence. It is instead the ability to more consciously Self-govern.
To the extent that I am unaware of my motives, largely relying on socially conditioned reactions triggered pre-thought, I am a slave to programmed instinct. To the extent that I am aware of my motives, and am therefore able to govern my behavior by intention, I am free. Increased Self-awareness affords more choices in applying purpose to existing structures — be they tangible constructs or intangible social codes. For example, I have used an office meeting room for its intended purpose. But I have also used it as a hideout during the work day, as a lunch room, as a chamber for romantic trysts, and as a space for late night dance parties (complete with a centralized soundsystem and a raised dance floor). While these alternative purposes admittedly require a modicum of Self-awareness to envision or execute, they illustrate the concept of going astray of convention. Constraints imposed by structure and scripted purpose are latently infused with a limitless array of off-script opportunities.
A seemingly endless expanse of open land, much like the terrain our flight is descending over, may possess an endless number of potential uses. But lacking the constraints imposed by architecture, utility and data connections, servers, printers, and a trained, socially conditioned workforce, the opportunities afforded by these combined and overlapping structures would not exist. New constraints afford new opportunities and new opportunities impose new constraints.
Take, for instance, an airplane. Without airplanes, airlines, air traffic regulations and controls, airports, and countless other networks, supply chains, and infrastructures, I would not have the opportunity to fly from here to there — in this case Bangkok to Yangon. Without airplanes it would likewise be unnecessary to constrain my actions according to various formal and informal social codes of in-airplane conduct. I would have no cause to engage in assorted small-scale battles over elbow room or seat recline as imposed by airplane architecture, various regulatory agencies, and civil society. Yet, for those of us engaged in these small battles over comfort and personal space, perhaps they aren’t such small battles. In the moment maybe they are everything. Maybe an individual’s entire focus is devoted to gaining back those extra inches of space between face and the seat which has just been reclined toward it, and there is no greater battle to win.
I’m arriving in the midst of my own small battles, which, in all likelihood, I have inflated to an absurd scale through obsessive focus. Particularly when juxtaposed against the battles being fought on a daily basis by the people in Myanmar, those who have faced starvation, oppression, torture, rape, or war. And the battles of the Myanmar Situation are themselves interpreted as lesser problems among a massive spectrum of geopolitical turmoils.
The cabin crew has just completed its procedures for organizing the cabin and the passengers contained therein — one of the preparatory stages in the greater airplane landing strategy; a process cued by an intercom announcement from the captain and the ding of the fasten seatbelt bell. Our tray tables and seatbacks are secured in their upright position, hand baggage stowed beneath the seats in front of us, seatbelts individually checked and confirmed “fastened,” personal electronic devices switched off… Excepting of course mine and those of any other traveling deviants who also chose to deviate, immediately retrieving our devices (in my case headphones and smartphone) once the minions of airline authority completed their duties and appropriately retired to their strongholds.
I lean deeper into the altogether unnecessary window-adjacent armrest, cocking my neck to watch the plane’s shadow scrape across the earth and its earth-bound constructs, jump the perimeter barriers of the air field, broaden, and reach up to meet the plane as it touches down, jittering and shaking when the brakes are applied. A garbled, overly amplified voice reminds us through the intercom to remain seated with our seatbelts fastened until the plane has taxied and is brought to a full and complete stop. This will be announced by the ding of a permission bell. Also, we are advised to be cautious when opening the overhead compartments as the contents may have shifted during the course of the flight. Thank you for flying with Social Justice Airways.
For a person, such as myself, who is not able to distinguish Burmese from Thai passengers based on appearance alone, the Burmese have distinguished themselves in being less conforming to both formal and informal in-airplane protocols. Prior to departing from Bangkok, during the take-off preparation phase in which the cabin crew performed its fastened seatbelt/stowed baggage/electronics-off detail prior to its safety and emergency evacuation briefing, a friendly and smiling female Thai crew member delicately instructed a Burmese woman seated in the row before mine that her young child needed to be seated in his own seat with his own seatbelt securely fastened over his own lap. However, the Burmese mother preferred to keep the boy in her grasp, seated in her lap. The smiling Thai woman insisted though. As did the Burmese mother, who, after four refusals to comply caused the smiling Thai woman, with an increasingly forced smile, to modify her approach. Commanding with an authoritative tone while also appealing to maternal instinct — the instinct to maintain your young child in your mothering clutches during moments of external risk, such as the risk of leaving solid earth in a jet-propelled metal capsule crammed with people from numerous cultures and backgrounds, all waging silent battles over elbow or leg room and acceptable degrees of seat recline — that the child must be seated and fastened in his own seat, not simply because it is airline safety policy, but also because it is actually safer for both the child and the mother. It was one of those seemingly rare situations in which official policy was aligned with reality — was the implied meaning of the forcefully smiling Thai woman’s words — making it, theoretically, a procedure not worth deviating from. The Burmese were much more deviant than the Thais, or so it seemed based on this one in-airplane example.
Upon landing, taxiing to a full and complete stop — announced by the permission bell — the de-boarding free-for-all began. We were off the official behavioral script. Seatbelt buckles flipped open, emails and text messages flooded newly empowered smartphones with personalized beeps and chimes, and the Burmese again distinguished themselves by hiking up the alley before other passengers had a chance to stand and block their way. They did not adhere to the socially governed international standard by which rows vacated one-by-one front to back, passengers in each row patiently allowing those before them to exit first. Once a column of Burmese filled the aisle, all others were required to let the parade pass or to forcefully insert themselves into the escape. I attributed it to economic and social isolation. The impositions of airplane architecture and its internationally recognized codes of airplane conduct, whether formalized by official policy or informally adopted by unspoken social agreements, had not yet been internalized by an entire segment of passengers on this flight. These Burmese passengers were in all likelihood brand spanking new to both the opportunities and constraints of air travel.
I have now exited, thanked on my way out by a select few members of Social Justice Airways’ cabin crew, joining the march from passenger jet to immigration counter — negotiating hallways by following signs with others who are eager to get through, ducking and dodging passengers less eager to make haste. At immigration, as is custom in nearly every airport immigration portal, we wait. And when it is our turn we subject ourselves to whichever biometric scanning procedures/strategies are employed by the governing agency in charge. Facial photographs are now commonplace. Fingerprinting is less common but not out of the question. We are conditioned to accept these intrusions, which trend over time in the direction of more rather than less intrusive, and we become more conditioned to accept these increases over time, as well. I am thoroughly “in the system” because I have elected to capitalize on the opportunities afforded by air transit, having flown across a number of borders. Being “in the system” is one of the imposed constraints of international travel.
I have no checked luggage, arriving only with a small name-brand backpack and a trendy lime green messenger bag. I walk through Customs unhindered, my neon blue Nikes seesawing along at a casual pace. No need to deviate in this moment, although deviation is my only aim. I flew to the Myanmar Situation for the sole purpose of going astray of the standardized, state-sponsored tourist agenda, and I am now there — inside. I am a deviant within the domain of a military regime.