Friday, 17 August 2012

The 'F-word' 3 ('But it's not FAIR!!!')

The degree of inequality in society troubles a lot of people towards the left-ish end of the spectrum. As Anna Chen says:
MP Michael Meacher's letter to the press has been doing the rounds and points out that the richest 1,000 people make up only 0.003% of the population and yet they have made £155bn extra in the past three years, in the depths of the recession. If they paid off the entire deficit they'd still have £30bn with which to console themselves.
It doesn't seem fair, does it? More thoughtful rightists and libertarians respond that inequality, broadly speaking, is fair. It's fair, they argue, for hard-working and skillful people to enjoy greater rewards than the lazy and untalented. That's a reasonable response, up to a point, although it still leaves a hell of a lot to argue about.*

More selfish and thoughtless rightists, libertarians and trolls simply deny that fairness is an issue at all and respond to the issue with the following knee-jerk slogans:
  • A mocking 'But it's not FAIR!!!', implying that anyone who mentions perceived unfairness is just like a whiny teenager, outraged at being asked to clean his or her room.
  • 'Life's not fair - welcome to the real world'.
The first slogan is just incoherent name-calling, but the second articulates what passes for a point among such people. It's a snappy slogan that would fit nicely on a t-shirt, but it's also more or less completely beside the point.

Life is unfair - but it's generally not "life" that people are complaining about. Most arguments about unfairness are about the perceived unfairness of people, or of institutions made by people.

Take two similar children, born at the same time, in similar circumstances. One is healthy and grows up to live a long, happy and fulfilling life. The other succumbs to a rare, unanticipated, incurable genetic illness, dying in early childhood after a short life, filled with pain and suffering. That's life being unfair. If you were insensitive to a sociopathic degree, you could truthfully lecture the distraught family about life being unfair (welcome to the real world), but your comments, although accurate, would be as pointless as they were cruel.

Humans and the institutions they create can also be unfair. But humans, unlike diseases, natural disasters, random accidents and other mindless things, are conscious moral agents. They can make choices. It might be pointless to expect fairness from blind, indifferent nature, but it's perfectly reasonable to expect, want and try to obtain fairness from people and from the institutions that people create.

When it comes to their own lives, your rightists, libertarians and trolls of the selfish and thoughtless persuasion have no difficulty in detecting unfairness. If they're buying or selling something and somebody dupes them or rips them off, the unfairness of the transaction is obvious and they'll, quite reasonably, complain, try to get restitution, invoke the sanctity of contract, invoke the law, tell their friends not to have any dealings with the offender and so on, just like any ordinary person.

It's only when you come across one of these people on the Internet, defending an apparently indefensible injustice with the Pavlovian taunt that life just isn't fair and only a spoilt child or a simpleton would expect things to be any different, that you realise that they seem to be selectively blind to any form of injustice that doesn't affect them personally, or which arises from what they see as the unquestionably just operations of the market.

Humans and the institutions and rules they create are clearly not always fair. But human unfairness isn't like the inescapable, random unfairness of "life", something that other humans just have to acquire the wisdom and forbearance to accept. Human unfairness has demonstrably been successfully challenged, corrected and mitigated on numerous occasions. Faced with blatant unfairness, Rosa Parks didn't just shut up and get to the back of the bus. There doesn't seem to be any point when Nelson Mandela decided, on mature reflection, that 'this apartheid business seems a bit unfair but I mustn't keep banging on about it - after all, it wouldn't make any difference if I did'. History isn't exactly on the side of those men who wished that female suffragists would stop endlessly bending their ears about how unfair it was to be denied the vote and just get real.

Not every example of perceived unfairness is as gross and clear cut as racial discrimination, or barring half the population from exercising a vote, but practically every example of the 'life's unfair - welcome to reality' trope in social and political debates boils down to somebody using a lazy cliché that sounds sort of clever, but isn't, in place of a substantive argument.

*Just for starters, some individuals prosper not just through hard work and virtue, but through inherited or other unearned advantages, or luck, or a callous lack of empathy and moral restraint, or duplicity, or exploitation, - and, while we're at it, what's so 'fair' about the invisible hand of the market when it values the refuse collectors who keep our civilisation from drowning in a vermin-infested sea of its own waste, or the junior nurses, tasked with keeping suffering people alive and cleaning up their blood, piss, pus, shit and tears at every kind of antisocial hour of the day or night, at an insultingly tiny fraction of the 'going rate' for a potato-headed buffoon whose sole outstanding talent happens to involve kicking a football about, or some deeply unpleasant numpty who turned to be particularly useless at running a bank ?