The word ‘fair’ gets thrown around a lot, and of course ‘unfair’ is probably used as often. I’ve written in my book about words and phrases that I think need to be removed from the english language, and I included the phrase “life isn’t fair.” Like so many other words, ‘fair’ is one that most people don’t seem to understand correctly. Unfortunately, I’m not sure they even understand the underlying concept either.
I’m sure by now, you have heard about President Trump complaining to the graduating class of the Coast Guard about how unfair he’s been treated. If by some miracle you have not, then I wish you a simultaneous congratulations —for managing to avoid the past week’s barrage of news— and shame—for being so detached from current events.
President Trump said that he has been treated unfairly (mostly by the media), but he hasn’t. He could argue that he has been treated badly by the media, in fact, I think since he’s taken office this has been somewhat the case, but ultimately I think he’s been treated very fair. The truth is you can be treated fair, and still end up fucked.
Trump, like so many of people, has confused treatment that you may not like with treatment that is not fair. Good and bad treatment, to some extent are objective—there is some wiggle room, but there a list of things that we could all agree are good, and a list of things we all could agree are bad.
Fair and unfair on the other hand, are subjective, or perhaps not subjective, but contextual. Would it be fair to throw a baby or small child in prison? I think we can all say it would not. Would it be fair to throw an adult who has committed murder in prison? I think we would mostly say yes.
If the media treated most other people the way that they are treating President Trump, there could be an argument made for unfair treatment. The problem with that label in this case is deserving it. President Trump, whether you like him or not, has earned this treatment, largely because the things he thinks are not fair come from the media pointing out how he criticized (perhaps I should say accused) President Obama, and Hillary Clinton for things that he is now pretty blatantly participating in. Had he a) not declared how terrible these things were, or b) not participated in them himself, he would probably getting better treatment from the media.
President Trump, is just the latest (and possibly boldest) misuser of the word, but it is something that really penetrates our society. If you watch as much legal TV, or films as I do, you would see defense attorneys talking about the right to a fair trial. This is something we have the right to, but here is what people have really taken that to mean: you have the right to 50/50 odds. That isn’t fair. If you committed a crime, a fair trial would be more likely to find you guilty (perhaps not 100% because after all I think the system can be imperfect and still striving for fairness) or vice versa. When someone who is guilty is found not guilty we hear ‘well they had the right to a fair trial,’ but ultimately the cards wouldn’t be stacked against the victim.
John Oliver on his show, Last Week Tonight, last year, talked about climate change, and how 97% of scientists believe that it’s real, while 3% don’t. He mentioned that every time we see the issue debated on TV it’s one expert from each side, giving us the illusion that both arguments hold equal weight. TV producers use these one on one debate styles (probably subconsciously) to seem fair, and unbiased.
Climate change is not the only topic this happens with. Fox News’ tagline was “fair and balanced” for a long time, and that is how most of us see fairness, as being partnered with balanced, but ultimately true fairness can seem unbalanced, this is how we end up with a false equivalency. We try to give an equal opportunity to a side of an issue that does not deserve an equal opportunity, or we say “well subject A isn’t perfect, so it must be as bad as subject B” even when subject B may be fucking terrible.
We’re never going to stop hearing or stop using the words ‘fair’ and ‘unfair,’ but my hope is that we can stop listening to them, and start analyzing their concepts in a better manner.