Thursday, March 25, 2010

To Be Fair...

Here's a thing that's been bothering me for a while. It is the "to be fair" defense. I went off on David Brooks about the "to be fair", and I feel pretty confident that I was right and my righteous tone and angry face I was making whilst typing was totes justified.

But here's the thing about "to be fair". It either takes the place of an actual critique (instead of "that soup was horrid; why did they mix chocolate with salsa bits and a beef broth?", we get "to be fair, I've never had good soup here"), or it qualifies that critique and thus makes it less forceful ("that soup was horrid; but to be fair, I've never had good soup here").

There's another thing about "to be fair". Life isn't. Seriously now. Life isn't fair. Life is hard, life is not fair, and life sometimes kicks people in the gonads for things other people have done before and gotten away with.

My sisters and I played a version of the "to be fair" game throughout their childhood and my adolescence. One of us, it didn't matter who, would do something known as "starting shit". Needling the others, picking at old wounds or fresh ones, or just generally being a pain in the ass. The other person would retaliate pretty damn quickly, because we all had thin skins when it came to each other's needling. Because that is the power siblings hold - the knowledge of how a precise word in a precise tone of voice can wreak havoc with someone's emotional well-being. Anyway, this sniping would continue, consistently elevating in tone and in emotions, until one or both of my parents would become aware of it, and then try to shut it down - generally with a "That's enough!" directed at one sib in particular. It was our less deadly version of Russian Roulette. Someone was going to get a "that's enough". Someone would get some pretty serious yellage if they continued to pester the point (which, of course, we all did; cuz we were stupid). And that someone could or could not be the person who originated the circle of recrimination and doom. And the argument would be, from the person hit, "I didn't start it!" Sometimes, if the person did start it (or even if they didn't), the argument would be, "they were doing it too!"

Those arguments? Were true. Truly, we all three were responsible for the shit storm of badness that made dinner such a fun occasion in my house lo those many years. And for whomever was on the receiving end of of parental wrath, it was less than fun, even unfair.

But. We all played the game. We couldn't help ourselves, being sisters and knowing the most profound injury to hit. And having been hit, absolutely needing to hit back. And we all knew that at some point, the game would end and the arrow would be on one of us.

What does this mean, in terms of "to be fair"? Well, it means that life isn't. And if you're doing something that is profoundly unfair, it can't be mitigated by the defense that other people are doing it.

In other words, The condemnation of the action taken can be - and should be - separate from the condemnation of the system in which that action takes place.

In other words, it is perfectly reasonable to call someone out on their shit and then move on to calling everyone out on their shit.

And sometimes, there really is no "to be fair". Take things like racism. There have been claims of "reverse racism", and someone somewhere may try to take the mainstream approach to having a panel, and have someone who claims racism still exists on a panel with someone who claims that whites encounter "reverse racism" in order to make the panel "fair". The truth is, whites still, categorically, hold so much power that there is no real other side to that story in terms of race. There is no "to be fair" if someone says, "Hey, that thing you did/said/Digged? That was racist". Sometimes, fairness isn't possible.

I think oftentimes the "to be fair" is deployed by someone looking to be judicious, someone looking to be seen as impartial. It is a function employed within the lie of objectivity. I used to believe in Objective Truth, that we could someday reach it. I now believe that there is Objective Truth about certain things, and that we as imperfect beings with points of view that are skewed by the psychological things such as beliefs we hold and physical things like imperfect eyesight will never, ever be able to actually obtain that truth. The most we can do is recognize where we are blind. "To be fair"ers tend to try to obtain that objective stance. They tend to want to believe that they can be fair, that they can accurately assess the situation and impart unbiased understanding to the rest of us. I don't believe they can.

Instead of "to be fair", given those constraints to actual fairness, I would rather if we simply acknowledged that there were people we would like to defend, and give those reasons for defending them. It seems better than expecting impartial judgements from people who will never be able to deliver.


John said...

I get what you're saying, but that's not the only use of "to be fair." I tend to use it when I'm trying to get someone to recognize that there's more than one side to any situation involving multiple people. This often gets me in trouble in my relationship, because instead of blindly agreeing and joining in the rage-fest with my girlfriend, I try to get her to calm down and remember that things might not be as black-and-white as they seem. It may put me in the doghouse, but I feel like being "fair" in this sense is key to preventing needless violence.

mikhailbakunin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mikhailbakunin said...

I think John is exactly right.

The purpose of "to be fair" is to acknowledge the moral complexities of the situation instead of simply jumping on the blame or anger bandwagon . . . which, while it may be cathartic, doesn't usually seem to get us anywhere.

petpluto said...

I get what you're saying, but that's not the only use of "to be fair."

Unfortunately, I think the second half - that of the impartial arbiter of what is fair and what is not - is always connected to the "to be fair" remark. It may not be what you're trying to get across, but it does connote a "more impartial and objective than thou" perspective.

The purpose of "to be fair" is to acknowledge the moral complexities of the situation instead of simply jumping on the blame or anger bandwagon . . . which, while it may be cathartic, doesn't usually seem to get us anywhere.

I'm not saying everyone should jump on the anger bandwagon. What I am saying is that "to be fair", while seemingly innocuous, carries with it the implicit authority of objectivity by the user. I'm saying that (a) bothers me, and (b) becomes a problem.

Also, it immediately says to the other person, "I don't think you are fair". Whether or not that may be true, it definitely doesn't help the "let's all calm down and think about this" case.

There are other, better, ways of acknowledging the moral complexities, I feel, than one which relegates one person as the moral arbiter of a debate or discussion.

petpluto said...

The purpose of "to be fair" is to acknowledge the moral complexities of the situation

Also, and I can't stress this enough, I find that oftentimes "to be fair" is thrown out there, and then the implications are not discussed. I'm not saying that John does that or that you do that. I am saying that, partially due to the structure in which "to be fair" rears its head (panels, tv debates between pundits), the "acknowledging moral complexities" part turns into "white-washing everyone's sins". Which, I'm not cool with, on either side.