Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2017/ Fairness


In my line of work, people use "fairness" as an excuse to refrain from helping people. "Oh, we can't give that person special treatment. It wouldn't be fair to others", they say.

It occurs to me that there are two different senses of fairness, and that institutions tend to play upon this ambiguity to protect their turf.

The first sense is "consistency". If one is not treating everybody consistently, then we might argue that we are not being fair.

The second sense is "justice". If people are being denied access to services, we might say that is not fair even if those people are not being treated equally to everybody else. (Consider the case of disability accomodations.)

I care about fairness as justice a lot. Institutions pay lip service to justice, but they actually care about consistency a lot more. When an institution argues that it would not be fair to give somebody special treatment, they are talking about consistency. Institutions hate inconsistency because they hate special cases, which consume extra resources. Institutions prefer to treat people like interchangable widgets. Every special case they are forced to make (for example, the aforementioned disability accomodations) are greeted with eyerolls and sighs, because special cases take resources, and resources means somebody will get saddled with additional work.

This is toxic. I understand why it exists but it is not just. It takes people who are not interchangeable widgets and forces them into widget-molds. Those who do not fit into those molds get crushed and discarded.

The irony is that I am supposedly working in the field of education, and in education it is precisely those outliers we ought to care about. The outliers are the ones who think differently from the rest of us, and therefore are the ones who have gifts that can advance knowledge. The smartest people are sometimes smart enough to act like widgets so they get through systems, but that certainly is not the case for all the smartest people. We are wasting enormous amounts of talent in our drive for consistency, and in so doing we are committing great injustice. Does that sound fair to you?

But this is not just about the smartest people. Lots of worthy people are imperfect widgets for lots of reasons. Many of those people could flourish if we as an institution could be more flexible. But we are not willing, because that would not be consistent. Then we wonder why our culture is so toxic, and why women and persecuted minorities are so unwilling to be part of that culture. It is not surprising at all to me.