KISSINGER: That's not fair!

February 23, 2013

Peter T. KissingerA number of accusations on both sides in the 2012 elections were extrapolations rebroadcast out of context. I began to wonder if the very notion of fairness was worthy of study, or if the word had any substantive meaning beyond complexion and the weather.

In my youth, fair implied not cheating. We spoke of fair play or a fair ball. The word had nothing to do with outcomes achieved (or not) when the rules of the game were followed. If we had a fair chance, we could lose with disappointment, but without complaint.

It was unfair to trip someone in a race or to copy homework. It was fair to lose a race or get an F in math.

A girl was near perfect on every test in my ninth grade math class. I did not think this unfair, but I did find it annoying and so I studied harder, but never got close.

More recently, a son struggled with physics. He said this was due to the fact that he was not Chinese and that this was unfair. Neither his mother nor I could change his genome at that stage. A totally unanticipated consequence to our family of Nixon’s engaging with China over 40 years ago. That Nixon—the one we’ve unfairly labeled Uncle Henry Kissinger.

Today I note two totally irreconcilable fairness concepts, both widely held. In the first of these, the winner, or achiever, is recognized and rewarded. In the second, fair implies equal outcomes, an equal share of the recognition or rewards.

The second is appealing to egalitarians and engenders the thought of “entitlement” as in “all get a blue ribbon and that’s only fair.’’ One could argue this second view carries back to the American Revolution, but making that extrapolation is not accurate.

“All men are created equal” is a phrase countering birthrights to royal positions, not the guarantee of equality of result. The expressed right was to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Any guarantee of achieving happiness destroys it and replaces meritocracy with a dystopia.

What do you think is the meaning of the word fair? Today it seems a loaded four-letter word (an F-bomb?) used with convenient imprecision. As with the more popular F-bomb, we can drop this one on any number of occasions.

In this respect, most of us seem to follow F. Scott Fitzgerald’s notion that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still be able to function.”

This quote is from an essay, “The Crack-Up,” published in 1936 in Esquire as the world was doing exactly that, and so seems to be once more. As now, we were indecisive then and let our troubles grow.

Fair deserves a rest. A more precise set of words could include meritorious, disciplined and ethical. We learn the most from failure and the more we fail, the more we learn from trying.

To hide this fact behind self-esteem does not serve our students well. Keeping score in sports is encouraged and we learn to handle disappointments.

Why are we so reluctant to face the inevitable disappointments in other endeavors? Character doesn’t develop if all failings are someone else’s fault. It’s sad to note the number of Lance Armstrongs in politics, science, medicine and business. Making stuff up is cheating. That’s not fair.•


Kissinger is a Purdue University professor and life sciences entrepreneur. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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