Thursday, February 28, 2013

What is fair?

This is a speech that I gave at my Toastmaster's group recently. Not sure if it reads the same as I delivered it but thought it was worth sharing and hopefully provoking some thoughts. Bear in mind that I originally began writing this last October or November (though I finished it only within the last couple of weeks) so it is somewhat dated but still worthwhile, I thought. I'd be interested in any feedback.

What is fair?

In the wake of our recent election cycle, there were many calls heard for more fairness in our democratic system. On one side, people argued that those who earned more money should be taxed more in order to give back to society what they have reaped from it so that things would be more fair. On the other side, people suggested that the idea of taxing one small sub-group more was inherently unfair and that fairness was that taxes be fairly applied to everyone. Certainly both arguments merit further discussion but, on its face, the idea of “fairness” is, indeed, a fair one. After all, everyone wants things to be fair in competition and in life. For example, the parity that exists in today’s National Football League and many other sports is something that resonates with most people. Fans are more drawn to the games if they feel that any team can win any given contest. Of course, the one exception to this idea of parity are the fans of those teams that might be more "fair" than the rest of the teams. 

Indeed, the idea of fairness is not a new ideal – it has served as the springboard for countless political initiatives and ideologies along with numerous social experiments to find some sort of resolution to the inequality that seems to plague us. And by us, I mean humanity, not some specific sub-set thereof.

I daresay that we are hard-wired to seek out equality where we can to bring a sense of fairness where we can. We do not like seeing people treated unfairly for whatever reason. We want a harmony to exist whereby everyone is the same – or at least we can feel that we are all the same.

However, the reality is that we are not. We are not equal and never have been equal. The ugly truth is that we are all terribly unequal and that the system, such as it is, is not “fair” no matter how it may be defined. No, the truth is that some people are smarter than others. Some people are better-looking than others. Some people are richer than others. Some people speak better than others. Some people are more artistic than others. Some people are more mechanically inclined than others. Some people are healthier than others. Some people have more hair than others (though I’d really like to see some fairness put in place for this issue!). Yes, I am sure that it is a surprise to everyone here that there are differences between us and make us all very unequal and it is impossible to create a “fair” system for all of us because of these inequities.

Really, is it even possible to create a “fair” system for everyone? And how do we define a “fair” system? One based upon the job title one holds? Their education? How much hair they have on the top of their heads? Their skin color? What type of homes people should own? How much money they make or pay in taxes? At its best, “fair” is a very subjective term, is contextually based, and should never be used as an absolute. Unfortunately, it is within the political realm that it is most often used as an absolute and that is a problem because it creates the false impression that fairness can be achieved. As an absolute, however, it cannot.

This does not, however, mean that we should not try to create a system that can serve to better benefit everyone. Indeed, the key is not that we should be working to make everything “fair” for everyone but should instead strive to create a system whereby everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. And the key words in that last sentence are “equal opportunity”. If you truly want a more “fair” society, then give everyone an equal opportunity to succeed. And the only way to ensure that happens is to give everyone the same start at the beginning and let them take advantage of what they can.

It all begins at school. The US offers a free education to all children regardless of any other circumstance and this is a major part of what has allowed America to succeed in the fashion it has throughout its short history. Education has been the origin of the path to a better life for Americans and it should be treasured for the knowledge that a good education imparts is the beginning of bettering oneself and attaining the equality that we all seek. Yet, far too often, we take education for granted. We fail to see that equality and fairness can only begin in our schools and the knowledge that they impart to each new generation. Indeed, children are the ones who can offer the best examples of fairness and equality because they are the ones who are unrelentingly honest and recognize where things should be equal and where it is impossible to impose equality. It is those same children who seek to do better and, given equal chances for learning, can achieve and succeed on what the preceding generations have done. Schools should be the centerpieces of society from which the hoped for “fairness” and equality can have a hope of being nurtured and grown into reality.

Give the children a chance to seek a fair life with some equality where they are judged not by the factors that separate us today but on their own skills, knowledge and accomplishments. Provide them with schools that are set not to lowered standards to ensure everyone is treated “fairly” with no winners or losers but with schools that will challenge them to do their best and give them a “fair” shake at a future in a life that is not always fair and equal.

We are not all equal and life is not fair – that is an unfortunate reality of life. But that does not mean that we should not seek to provide the opportunity for the next generation to achieve and succeed so that they may be better than the labels of “fair” and “equal” given them today which, in the real and future world, may not always be applicable.

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