Saturday, April 11, 2009

When fairness mattered

“That’s not fair!” is a commonly-used exclamation, employed more and more by those expressing disappointment that something hasn't turned their way. Frequently it has little or nothing to do with the actual issue of “fairness.”

In days gone by, complaining about a lack of fairness usually had to do with equality issues. They were calls for justice, calls for the leveling of playing fields. Now it’s mostly a spontaneous complaint meaning the speaker’s expectations weren’t met.

As so many young people have become fond of saying, “That’s not fair!” for precisely that reason, it’s a phrase that sometimes grates on my geezer ears.

In a nutshell, here’s what “fair” means, as defined by Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary:

Marked by impartiality and honesty; just; conforming with the established rules.

Although being fair is an aspect of honesty, this rant isn’t about all the elements of integrity. After all, a thief or a liar can still be fair. And, sometimes people overseeing justice for society wouldn't have known fairness if they had stepped in it.

Key to dismantling the laws that perpetuated the Jim Crow Era’s institutionalized racism were legal arguments that pointed at guarantees ALL American citizens were supposed to have, not just SOME. Those arguments called upon the government itself to stop facilitating “unfairness” to do with how public funds were spent.

The stubborn Massive Resisters' defense of segregation in Virginia's public schools 50 years ago was based on another affront to the definition of a word; in this case it was the word “equal.” Their catchphrase, “separate but equal,” was swept into history’s dustbin of doubletalk, because any fair judge could see that in practice, “separate,” inevitably meant, “unequal.”

Thus, the Supreme Court unanimously said that maintaining separate public schools for black students and white students wasn’t fair to the taxpaying black families, whose children were attending what were clearly substandard public schools.

Of course, having a major television network use the word “fair” to promote its warped news presentations as “fair and balanced” makes a rather sick joke out of what constitutes an honest effort to be fair.

Speaking of jokes, comedian Stephen Colbert, of The Colbert Report, coined a new term in 2005 -- “truthiness” -- that continues to speak volumes on the way authenticity and integrity have become archaic concepts to many who labor at the business of disseminating political information, whether they are working for a publisher or a politician.

After the sacrifices that have been made for the sake of extending fairness to one and all, it's sad for my geezer eyes to see the concept of what constitutes fairness getting fuzzy.

Dig it: True fairness can stem from the randomness of nature, or it can flow from the adherence to agreed-upon standards. Every time the meaning of the word “fair” gets tortured, for the sake of whim or expediency, it's another little step away what has been a cornerstone of our open and freedom-loving society.