Yesterday, July 4, the San Diego County Fair, a combination of fried food feast, cabinetmaker creations, mind-numbing merchandise marketing, and carnival, ended its 2012 run. That is one sense of fair.
Time’s Joel Stein, one of my favorite journalists, in part because of his irreverent tendencies, made a point about what is fair in his essay on solving the European economic instability (Stein, 2012). Stein proclaimed that fairness “is the rallying cry of idiots” (p. 62) and, while that may be a tad harsh, in the context of the essay, a functional definition of fairness seems elusive. Even if we could agree on definitions of fair and fairness, such agreement might not have utility beyond some moral keel rather than a rudder.
Stein (2012) offered examples that seem to suggest that people who cry out for fairness are frequently those who do not have something that they want somebody else to provide. People in some of Europe’s southern countries want their counterparts in the north to be fair. This, of course, is not always the case. As a professor, students seem inclined to ask for, or demand, fairness in grading; rare indeed is they outcry for justice in grading. As a consultant, clients want fair valuations for their companies and for services rendered; again, justice is, at best, an implication.
In each of these instances, fairness seems to be subject to negotiation, as if we should not expect what is fair to be somehow self-evident and obvious within a specific cultural context. So, fairness is not a matter of objectivity. Fairness also seems to be too rarely associated with accountability; people asking for fairness generally do not seem to want the other party to hold them accountable for the past, but the future might be a topic for negotiation.
People asking for fairness frequently seem to request grace and generosity from others. Perhaps fairness is easier to request than grace and generosity because people in some cultures see fairness as an obligation whereas graciousness and generosity are gifts from one to the other. In those cultures, asking for a gift might be rude and seeking fairnessoug may carry an implication of guilt if the request is denied.
Even though I dislike the traffic, the crowds, the exaggerated prices, and the excessive calories, the Fair somehow seems easier to fathom and define than the fair.
Stein, J. (2012, July 2). Acropolis now. It’s not hard to rescue Europe from Greece. Even I have a plan. Time 180(1), 62.