Harryette Mullen and I, that is to say “We”, are not responsible for your understanding of the following paragraph. The onus is purely on you. “We Are Not Responsible” covers the full array—“lost or stolen relatives,” “handouts,” “honor[ing] reservations.” It goes further: “You were detained for interrogation because you fit the profile,” “It’s not our fault you were born with a gain color,” and, of course, “Please remain calm, or we can’t be responsible for what happens to you.” Mullen creates a whirl of twisting guidelines and regulations, all set towards the oppressive “We” being, ultimately, void of blame. It is a collection of rules, of denials, of castaway refusals and warnings against any form of accommodation to natural customer service or, indeed, human right laws. Wonderful.
The most powerful weapon in Harryette Mullen’s arsenal, here, is her knack for turned lines. That isn’t to say that each line is formatted strangely, halfway through shifting perpendicular on the page, but that each line has this knack of following a standard, boring TSA-era guideline and shifting to a darker and more humorous pat. For instance, the very first: “We are not responsible for your lost or stolen…” Standard procedure so far—certainly nothing of interest. It’ll be “baggage” or “personal items” or “suitcases.” And then she finishes: “relatives.” And suddenly the whole shebang has been flipped on its head, and this kind of form—a standard kind of rule-warning hybrid—is flipped into absurdity, and this allows Mullen’s creativity, and her purpose, to flourish. She doubles back onto that first line in the second: “We cannot guarantee your safety if you disobey our instructions,” and suddenly it’s clear that “We” is not only really horrible at handling lost claims, but, indeed, is an authoritative overlord, given, by way of these mid-sentence turns, to utter destruction of those who would wish to break the rules.
And then Mullen shifts into an explicit second person referral, which continues to use those turned lines now showing that as colloquially as she uses “We,” she will also refer to “You” personally. “In the event of a loss, you’d better look out for yourself” is the perfect example of this: Mullen lays down that standard first half and then addresses “You” directly, and tells you that, frankly, “We” don’t care about protecting, saving, or even acknowledging you beyond reminding you that anything negative that happens to you is probably your own fault. It’s a turn on the Standard Operating Procedure of airlines and other services where spiels provide a sense of false ordinance, and Mullen capitalizes on this falseness. Following the trend of not giving a shit, she descends into your shocking lack of human rights:
“It is not our obligation to inform you of your rights. Step aside, please, while our officer inspects your bad attitude. You have no rights that we are bound to respect. Please remain calm, or we can’t be held responsible for what happens for you.”
These shifting lines, setting up one finish and delivering another, create the perfect environment through which Mullen can slowly shift down past the humor and into the grit of your lack of rights, and how the airline, the TSA, the government—none of them give a fuck about you. This becomes Mullen’s message to readers (and, more importantly, to me, writers): to mimic life, writing is best served in its peculiarity. Catch expectations with its pants down, turn your phrases to serve the unexpected, and don’t give a fuck about the expected’s hurt feelings. Because, frankly, “We Are Not Responsible”.