My Fair Lady

I’ve been thinking a bit about fairness the past few days, and the ways I value and desire a sense of fairness in things. My thoughts are a little scattered tonight, so I may just rocket through a few different angles on the topic, rather than pretending I have a cohesive essay to share.

standardizedanimalsOne of the most common adages that comes to my mind when I invoke the concept of fairness is that old saying: “Life isn’t fair!” And there are times that I do remind myself of that fact. Because sometimes my wishing for fairness does come from the a child’s magical-thinking place, where I’m wanting a “big daddy in the sky” sort of God to pave the way for me to have an easeful and trouble-free life.

So when I’m invoking the term fairness as code for “privilege,” it is something that deserves to have a question mark placed in there, with the reminder that fairness in one’s external circumstances is never guaranteed. And also, for whatever mishap might have me wishing life were more fair advantageous, the fact remains that I have received many gifts from life for which I ought to be grateful.


One of the things we talk about at work is the way that “fair” does not necessarily mean “equal.” Since we spend some portion of our time working to serve students with learning differences or other special needs, it is likely unsurprising that we would resonate to the insights of Dr. Richard Curwin in this recent(ish) Edutopia post:

But what is fair? Many define it as treating everyone the same, but I would argue that doing so is the most unfair way to treat students. Students are not the same. They have different motivations for their choices, different needs, different causes for misbehavior and different goals. I think this is good, because wouldn’t the world be very boring if we were all the same?

The cartoon above signals some of this, as does a quote I have up on my cubicle wall:

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.*


The one place where I am most deeply studying fairness is the depth of my desire for people to emulate fairness in our dealings with each other. I know I am driven crazy by those petty sorts of individual inequities that arise during interactions — people changing the rules on each other, situations where I might hold myself to a looser standard of behavior than I ask of those around me (or vice versa). And then, more deeply, there is the heartbreaking injustice of systemic unfairness wrapped up in cultural ills and prejudices.

It is with these areas of human unfairness — whether on a personal or a systemic level — that the adage “life isn’t fair” rings hollow to me. Like it’s just a cop-out to spare ourselves the effort of practicing deeper levels of kindness and compassion with how we see each other and hold each other in regard.

* If you were to google this, most sources would cite this quote to Einstein, but that’s probably an apocryphal attribution.


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