We made it out of slavery. Can we make out of unfairness?
On Passover, we commemorate how Moses led the Jewish people to freedom. Let’s face it, the Jews were treated very, very poorly by the Egyptians. Some might even call our ancestors’ enslavement “unfair.”
I thought of this because the RNC chose the day before Passover to announce its withdrawal from the traditional presidential debate framework – an announcement in which the word “fair” appears no less than seven times (yes, I counted).
Fair is a Valid Standard…in Kickball
I don’t recall “fairness” being used in public by anyone over 10 years old until former President Donald Trump started applying “unfair” so broadly that even a good dose of disinfectant couldn’t eliminate it from the political lexicon. Then, when former PM Benjamin Netanyahu realized that all the cool petty dictator wannabes were speaking Trumpish, the term erupted like acne on the Israeli body politic, too.
When I was 10 years old, ‘fair’ was getting the same amount of pudding as my brother. ‘Unfair’ was him crossing the invisible line separating us in the back seat of the car (which, in my defense, he totally did ALL the time). Inevitably, when we gave voice to our opinions about the ‘fairness’ or ‘unfairness’ of any such situation, we would hear from my mother: “Deal with it, boys, life’s not fair.”
And that’s as far as it went.
By the time I was 11, I had learned to perceive the world through a slightly more sophisticated lens. I graduated from “that’s not fair” to “I think you’re a jerk for doing/thinking/saying that.” If you think about it, this is a tremendous developmental journey – and one I just assumed that all adults made.
It’s a journey from the assumption that my subjective perception (fair/unfair) actually equals objective reality, to the recognition that what I perceive (you’re a jerk) is just that: my perception. In philosophical terms, it’s the journey from absolutism to subjectivism. In psychological terms…well, there’s likely something I could spend an hour Googling. But in day-to-day proletariat speak, I believe the term is simply “growing the f— up.”
Not Just Splitting Hairs
But whatever you call the journey, it’s meaningful – especially if you don’t undertake it.
At the societal level, the terms we use to communicate with each other are a direct reflection of how we feel towards each other. And they shape, in a very concrete manner, how we relate to one another.
A society that uses “fairness” as an objective standard is inevitably going to be intolerant. Because when I allow myself the luxury of projecting my reality onto the world, rather than accepting that my perception of reality is just one of multitudes – I get to be right all the time. And this is awesome…when you’re 10 years old. Because when you’re 10, you get to have a crystal clear concept of us (the right) and them (the wrong). And when “they” expect me to consider reality from their misguided perception of it – when they make me play kickball by their rules, for example – well, that’s just unfair, isn’t it?
Similarly, a body politic that allows itself to frame policy arguments in terms of “fairness” is a body politic prone to fragmentation and extremism. A political party that judges events by their fairness or unfairness presupposes its own infallibility. If a ruling, practice or action is “unfair,” it must be a violation of some universal principle “fairness.” And – surprise, surprise – this principle is without fail in-line with what I believe. It’s beautiful circular logic.
But What’s the Alternative?
I am not advocating a wishy-washy societal and political dialog, in which we’re all so busy bending over backwards to lick our political correctness that we wander through the desert forever. Adherence to principle and belief are keys to the social contract. But so is cooperation. So is consideration. And so is the absolute understanding that there IS no absolute understanding. What is right today may not be right tomorrow. What we believed yesterday to be an inviolate world order, looks radically different after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for example.
The point is, there literally is no such thing as “fair” if you’re over 10 years old.
“We made it through Pharaoh, we can make it through this,” goes the popular Israeli adage. This year, in the interests of our collective freedom, could we please try to make it through unfairness?