Monday, April 21, 2008

'Fairness' as a word, not an idea


If you don’t have much soul left and you know it,
you still got soul.

-- Charles Bukowski (1920-94; depicted above)

“That’s not fair!” is a commonly-used phrase, employed more and more by those expressing some measure of disappointment about something that didn’t turn their way.

Yet, when uttered these days it usually has little or nothing to do with the actual issue of “fairness,” or whatever is seen as its opposite. That, while in days gone by, complaining about a lack of fairness usually had to do with equality issues, calls for the leveling of playing fields.

Now it’s mostly a spontaneous exclamation 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 piece isn’t about all the elements of integrity. After all, a thief or a liar can still be fair. The focus for this rant is on how little playing fair seems to matter, this far into the age of postmodernism.

Historically, battling “unfairness” has been at the heart of righteous social movements. 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 are 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.

Which means frivolous, disingenuous calls for fairness tend to undermine legitimate calls for it. Calling “not fair!” when one doesn’t actually mean it, is not unlike crying “wolf” in the Aesop’s Fable about a mischievous boy sounding false alarms.

Even more twisted in today’s hyper-partisan political atmosphere is the expectation we hear expressed by propagandists-for-hire that it’s reasonable to expect judges to be capable of seeing beyond their own political proclivities, in presiding over cases that cut along ideological lines. Such opportunistic accusations flung at the professional integrity of judges, in general, surely is having a corrosive effect on our entire system of justice.

Of course, having a major television network use the word “fair” to promote its warped news presentations as “fair and balanced” -- in a beyond cynical, Newspeak fashion -- 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.

As a fellow writer recently said to me about a prominent local politician, "He believes in words, not ideas."

True fairness can stem from the randomness of nature, or it can flow from the adherence to agreed-upon standards. Time-honored precepts, such as evenhandedness and respect for the dignity of others, were at the heart of launching our country’s experiment in democracy. They have provided a guiding light for each new generation, to do a better job of applying those precepts ... until such lofty notions began to seem out-of-style.

Now it seems we have a generation of Americans that is struggling to understand their meaning and their purpose. Every time someone tortures the meaning of the word “fair,” we take another little step toward the day it will mean nothing.

Moreover, if everyday Americans lose track of what’s left of their willingness, their capacity to try to be fair -- whether they are acting as members of a family, or a neighborhood, or some sort of team -- then whatever is left of our society’s collective soul may be what turns up missing in the long run.

-- Words and art by F.T. Rea

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