Intentionally Unreasonable: The fairness of unfairness

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“It was then that Hook bit him. Not the pain of this but its unfairness was what dazed Peter. It made him quite helpless. He could only stare, horrified. Every child is affected thus the first time he is treated unfairly. All he thinks he has a right to when he comes to you to be yours is fairness. After you have been unfair to him he will love you again, but he will never afterwards be quite the same boy. No one ever gets over the first unfairness; no one except Peter.”

— J.M. Barrie, “Peter Pan”

Last week in these pages a story concluded with this quote from one of Maine’s elected legislators in regards to the decision by a municipality to modify local and state tax law to accommodate a group of homeowners looking for a form of tax relief: “I think it’s a monumental act of unfairness.”

I would dare say that the tonality that delivered that quote, if branded, would be called “PPRI”: pompous political righteous indignation.

This column isn’t about the merits of that specific issue or the motivation of that particular elected official. Instead, I want to discuss the typically vague, frequently contentious and virtually always subjective concept of “fairness,” a concept that is most often the catalyst for our worst actions: road rage, employment disputes, the majority of all political commentary, and 98 percent of what sports fans shout at referees.

As a former sports agent, sports tournament director, parent of student-athletes, co-owner of a professional sports team, active sports fan, and former sports columnist, I have attended and/or participated in thousands of sports events and I deplore the “unfairness” mythology that is now attached to virtually every level of sport.

While I certainly believe that referees sometimes make mistakes, I have never believed or seen evidence that any referee has intentionally skewed calls to cheat one team over another. Yes, referees make human mistakes; yes, all referees carry personal preferences or bias that may shade some of their subjective decision making. But ultimately, it all evens out when the time window increases in aperture from nanosecond judgment to season-long result.

Has any team in history ever claimed that they would have won a championship if not for six months of bad calls from referees?

My hypothesis: the sharpness of blame and volume of anger that most fans direct at referees is directly proportional to their own personal experiences and deficiencies associated with giving or getting, real or perceived injustice. That, and we as a society have lost all semblance of having a rational orientation and calibration of the word and application of “fairness.”

Last weekend I took my 14-year-old son to the Harvard-Cornell lacrosse game in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to watch his favorite sport in live action. Sitting in the visitors’ bleachers (the only open seats) we found ourselves in a sea of rabid Cornell parents who for two hours directed constant verbal abuse at the referees and to many of the Harvard players. Every goal scored by Harvard was jeered (with profanity) as an epic injustice and every missed Cornell opportunity was decried (with more profanity) as the byproduct of referee malpractice with evil intent.

When Harvard (the underdog in the matchup) scored a goal within the last 30 seconds to win the game, the fiftysomething Cornell parent next to me was left in emotional distress, muttering over and over, “so … unfair … so unfair … so unfair.” Five minutes later he was still sitting there, shaking his head, being consoled by his wife, chanting in mantra fashion as if stuck in a loop, “he was offsides … offsides … offsides.”

As anyone with a kid knows, the plaintiff wail of “that’s not fair” is a staple of parent-child communication that becomes multiplied by a factor of 10 when a sibling is involved. But how did we get to a point where overly entitled, wealthy, pompous adults (yes, I profiled the jerky Cornell dad) apply that same childish behavior as part of their own operating system?

It is now common in all walks of life for adults to apply the “it’s not fair” claim: in politics, the workplace, sports, academia, etc., as a catchall to describe outcomes that go against our own personal interests. And sadly, many parents are passing along the excuse of “unfairness” to their kids as a crutch to help them limp through their future disappointments.

In a world rampant with hypocrisy, injustice, inequality, double-triple-quadruple-standards, random death, health crises and a vast menu of constant human tragedy – all “unfair” in one way of another – we as a society have lost much of our capacity to accept and overcome challenges without first blaming others or the universe itself.

Life is hard. Lacrosse games are tough. Local property tax rulings sometimes go against one’s own interests. But even Peter Pan would agree that the pursuit of absolute “fairness” is a mythical fairy tale often predicated on subjective truth – a dimension that no one can own, no matter how much righteous indignation is applied.

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Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week. He can also be heard each Saturday at 11 a.m. on WLOB-AM 1310.