Columnist J.M. Sorrell: Fair play

Published: 8/2/2022 3:03:11 PM
Modified: 8/2/2022 3:00:02 PM

We start to develop our own subjective feeling of what is fair or not fair even before we learn to walk and talk. A baby expresses outrage as her pacifier falls from her mouth and she cannot reach it or when someone puts her down and she wants to be held.

Doesn’t it seem as though she is feeling something is unfair about the predicament? The same may be true a couple of years later in the grocery store when the toddler wants candy or something off limits and the parent tells him, “No.” We have all seen the meltdown store scene more than once.

Over time — through our development and experiences — we continue to process incidents and effects as fair or unfair. Then we extend that to how we see others in the fairness realm. We study history and decide that regimes and wars meant abject unfairness to many and our biases mean that our interpretations vary. The environment and teacher influence us, too.

In high school in the 1970s, my U.S. history course was skewed to teach me that white Europeans came to this soil and bravely created a modern democracy. Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” taught me that most everything I learned was inaccurate or sorely missing the depth of the horrors inflicted on Indigenous and enslaved people, and immigrants of all sorts. If my mind was not open, I would have stuck to that first story.

The concept of fairness is complex and idiosyncratic without interference. It’s downright dangerous when deceit is used to rewrite generally accepted rules of impartiality. Right-wing Christian nationalist and Republican leaders are deft at convincing their followers that a diverse and equitable society is somehow unfair to them. They blame antifa or Black Lives Matter activists for the actions of white supremacist groups. The Jan. 6 rioters at the Capitol decided to believe that the presidential election results were unfair despite the facts.

People engaged in the reparations movement for descendants of enslaved people believe that this is a long overdue acknowledgement of the multigenerational harm caused by slavery. Opponents feel it is unfair to pay for something they did not cause. The same holds true for Black farmers.

On President Joe Biden’s first day in office, he signed an executive order as part of the American Rescue Plan Act to relieve debts for Black and Indigenous farmers. The United States Department of Agriculture has a disturbing history of preference for loans to white farmers. The Pigford cases (1997 and 1998) acknowledged systemic discrimination against Black farmers and a settlement was proffered; however, it was not administered effectively and many Black farmers continued to go bankrupt (“Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice,” 2020, Hanna Garth).

Shortly after Biden’s order, white farmers across the South, West and Midwest engaged in lawsuits alleging reverse discrimination. I was sickened but not surprised to learn that Stephen Miller and other Trump officials created one of the plaintiff groups. The executive order failed.

On March 9, 2022, the USDA announced that it was making funds available to historically underserved farmers but it does not approach the scope Biden originally ordered, and the process for application is heavily bureaucratic unlike the debt forgiveness process.

In my case, I believe in equity, reparations, and an evolution where humans respect the planet and each other with kindness and deep empathy. I believe fairness includes owning the truth and injustices of legally and socially sanctioned bigotry and understanding that one person’s fair shot generally does not oppress another person with the same opportunities. What is fair, and who is to blame for inequity?

If a child sees another child with a toy that she wants, two potentially favorable and fair outcomes include the child with the toy sharing it or the child without the toy acquiring one of her own. Unfair outcomes include the child taking the toy or the child with the toy taunting but not sharing the toy with the other child. Power dynamics can make the scenario complicated. What if the child with the toy is physically or cognitively disadvantaged? Or if the child without the toy is powerless? Each child is counting on the other to be supportive — according to her own code.

Fairness is complicated. Pro-choice activists believe each woman should make her own reproductive decisions, while anti-choice forces believe otherwise. Without a monolithic view of fairness, are we doomed to righteous attachment that deepens our divide?

J.M. Sorrell is a social justice activist/trainer and a feminist at her core.
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