Home / Culture and Society / Language Matters in Life and Business: Language Prejudice, Language Paranoia

Language Matters in Life and Business: Language Prejudice, Language Paranoia

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southwest airlines“Paranoia strikes deep,” goes the old song. It’s never been more true than in these days of anti-Muslim jitters.

On April 6, a 26-year-old college student at the University of California was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Oakland because another passenger heard him speaking Arabic, and reported the fact to the flight crew.

Speaking Arabic. That’s all.

Khairuldeen Makhzoomi’s father, the New York Times reported, had been an Iraqi diplomat, jailed and then killed by Saddam Hussein’s regime. His family came to the U.S. as refugees six years ago.

In an ironic coda to this lamentable story of language prejudice, Southwest abused the English language. Its response included this gem:

“We regret any less than positive experience a customer has onboard our aircraft.”

“Less than positive.” A classic example of apologetic marketing-speak gone haywire. The airline had pulled Makhzoomi off their plane and questioned him as a terrorist.

The Washington Post reports that Makhzoomi majors in political science and Near Eastern studies, and that “his research centers on how life can be improved in his home country.”

As the plane waited to take off, he was talking on the phone to his uncle about an event he’d attended with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Then came a suspicious stare from a woman sitting in front of him, and Khairuldeen Makhzoomi’s day became, well, just a little bit “less than positive.”

“Why would you speak in Arabic on the airplane?” asked the Arabic-speaking airline employee who hauled him off the plane. “It’s dangerous. You know the environment around the airport. You understand what’s going on in this country.”

I think I understand what going on on this airline, at least. This wasn’t the only recent such incident on a Southwest Airlines flight.

I traveled with my family quite a bit when I was a kid in the 1970s. Back then, hijacking was the danger associated with flying. I remember my father informing me in no uncertain terms never to utter the word “hijack” on a plane. Just in case.

Khairuldeen Makhzoomi just wanted to get to class that day. Instead, once the FBI let him go, he was able to book a flight on another airline, and arrived nine hours after he’d planned to. Another victory for language paranoia.

“Paranoia strikes deep…It starts when you’re always afraid. Step out of line, the man come and take you away.”


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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.