Fairness, equality, humility versus false modesty

>> Sunday, February 24, 2008

A number of years ago--four, actually--Dahlia Lithwick wrote a fine piece in Slate about Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, responding to a speech Justice O'Connor gave while awarding a scholarship to a high school senior in Charlottesville, VA. It's worth reading.

The speech that Justice O'Connor gave was one in which she spoke of her life. Justice O'Connor graduated third in her class from Stanford Law (O'Connor, incidentally, fails to mention her class rank; Lithwick fills in this detail for us) but was unable to get a job as an attorney. Not because there weren't any jobs available in the field: a woman who went on to be a remarkable Supreme Court Justice was offered work as a legal secretary.

Justice O'Connor went to work as a prosecutor, then a private attorney, then for the AG's office, then became a state legislature, a judge and at last a Supreme Court Justice. She started this trajectory in 1952, a year when men worked outside the home and women worked in it, when women were largely considered too emotional for smart jobs (other than schoolteacher) and too inattentive for complicated tasks like driving automobiles. You know, an era when an economist who was on the Stanford Law Review and who graduated third in her class at law school could be offered a job as a typist.

But what might be the most remarkable thing about Justice O'Connor, Lithwick notes, is that Sandra Day O'Connor doesn't think she's an extraordinary woman who overcame cultural barriers against women to rise to the top of her field against all the odds. Justice O'Connor thinks she's an ordinary woman who was at the right place at the right time. And while modesty is often thought of as a virtue, it can be a terrible, terrible flaw. I agree with Lithwick's conclusion about a Justice who is one of my favorite Supreme Court Justices of all time:

There's a contradiction implicit in O'Connor's view of herself and her view of others. She is deeply impressed by these extraordinary young women [the scholarship recipient and finalists] yet unable to accept that she and they are truly unusual. This expectation of extraordinariness—natural, perhaps to one born on a ranch in Arizona and having the heart of a prizefighter—animates her strange hybrid jurisprudence, of infinite compassion in some cases and almost willful intolerance in others. One of the reasons audiences across America lose their hearts to Sandra Day O'Connor is that she seems to have no idea how extraordinary she is. One of the reasons people across America sometimes lose their cases before her is that she has no idea how ordinary the rest of us are.

Justice O'Connor is an extraordinary woman. And it's one thing to be humble about being extraordinary. But it's a different thing altogether not to realize that other people in the world aren't as smart, or lucky, or capable--that not everyone can achieve what you've been able to achieve, and for reasons that may not even be their fault.

Justice O'Connor reminds me a lot of my Grandmother on my Dad's side. My Grandmother turns 93 this year, and is a woman who will tell you how upset she was when she couldn't go to college a year early. She was raised by parents who valued education, and when so many young women of her generation went to college to get a MRS., she went to get an education. And she did, and worked a number of jobs in psychology and education and was fortunate to meet a man who was looking for a peer and not merely a helpmate: to this day, my Grandmother is thrilled that my late Grandfather refused to let her win a game of tennis half-a-century ago, when so many men would have gone easy on the girl. But my Grandmother, who has spent much of her professional and private life trying to serve the communities she's lived in and is a Republican, doesn't seem to get that not all women, or even all people, are like she is, and that she had unusual parents and a rare mind and a little bit of good fortune, and like a lot of conservatives she sometimes judges folks who haven't done well a touch harshly, not seeming to understand that not everyone in the world is as smart or aggressive or bold or lucky as she has been. She's modest about her achievements, not recognizing that they are achievements. She thinks she's ordinary. She isn't.

I mention all of this because of a blog post John The Scientist wrote over on Refugees From The City, in which he defends anti-intellectualism. John's a smart guy--as much as he denies, it, he's an intellectual--and he makes some good points, but he's wrong about this one. What he's really decrying is intellectual elitism, in fact what he's most upset about are the missteps that various members of the intelligentsia have made in various times and places. And that's more than fair: members of the intelligentsia are human, and can be just as naive, wrong, or even plain dumb as any other human being. He's right that intellectuals need people to call bullshit on them sometimes.

But there's a difference between asking smart questions as you go and taking an anti-intellectual position, which is really the position that intellectuals aren't different from everyone else. Everyone is different from everyone else.

At the heart of this is a common flaw in conservatism that's noble in spirit but crummy when applied to the real world: this is the idea that we're all created equal, which sounds wonderful and works as a good starting point for trying to create a perfect society, but isn't actually true. Well, no, it is true in a fundamental sense that every single person shares a vast percentage of their DNA, descended from a common lineage, and is human. But beyond that, some people are better at math than others, and some people are better at sports, and some people are generally accepted as being more attractive than others, and some people have trouble speaking in public and others have a predisposition to substance abuse addiction. Within that common human genome there's a lot of variation.

Much of modern conservatism in America is based on the notion that you ought to treat everyone equally, that anyone can achieve in America by dint of hard work if they just put their minds to it. It's a version of the Prostestant Work Ethic that's been secularized by capitalism: the only difference between someone who sweeps floors and the person on the top floor of the bank is that the CEO worked harder. The perversity of it, of course, is that this noble idea (equality) ends up being a rationalization to ignore inequities within the system: if the janitor hasn't achieved as much as the executive, surely it's the janitor's fault because he could have done better if only he had tried.

Well maybe he could have and maybe not. We don't all start on the same square on the board. Some people get to go before others do. Some players start with a little more money or with better connections. Some people start with better parents. Some people are born into the world with a skin color that's been targeted for discrimination, or on the wrong side of a river or other national border. Some people are born in poor counties and some in rich counties, some go to good schools and others go to bad ones, some get excellent medical attention as children and some get none. And the list goes on. You have six billion individuals on this planet who were born into slightly different circumstances--even those who share parents had, as a matter of course, a different number of older siblings and parents of slightly different ages when they were born. You have six billion people who are all human, but other than that they're not the same.

Equality is a chimera. The crucial thing isn't equality. It's fairness.

Because the world will never be fair, but a society can decide to make it more fair. A society can recognize that it's treated some of its members badly and try to make up for it. A society can try to balance the opportunities people have for education and medical attention and enough food to eat. A society can try to protect its most vulnerable members, the young and the sick and the old. But it can't make everyone equal.

No, that's not true, either. Once upon a time, there was a land that had been ruled by its largest ethnic group, the Khmer, and was known as the Empire of the Khmer. And then the French came and called it Indochina, and then it got splintered off in the collapse of colonialism and called Cambodia. By many accounts, it was a poor country, but beautiful. But in the northern part of the country a group of Cambodian leftists, who were dubbed the "Red Khmer" by Cambodia's ruler of the time, Prince Sihanouk (that's "Khmer Rouge," in French, as you no doubt already know) fought a little war to take over the country and install an idealistic regime where everyone would be equal.

In time, that little war became a big war. Prince Sihanouk had dealt with the war in a neighboring country, Vietnam, by pretending that the North Vietnamese weren't straying into Cambodia to bring supplies and troops to South Vietnam. This policy made the United States, which was supporting the South Vietnamese, unhappy, and one of the things we did about it was to try to bomb camps the North Vietnamese had installed along the border, with the unintended consequence that the North Vietnamese troops went deeper into Cambodia, where they met the Khmer Rouge and decided it would be amusing to train and radicalize them even though their Cambodian counterparts had a centuries-old hatred of all things Vietnamese. And then the United States decided to expand the scope of the bombing strategy and support the ouster of Sihanouk in favor of leaders who would be more active in taking on the border problem despite their terrible lack of actual competency, and the upshot was that the Khmer Rouge became even crazier and better armed (largely on equipment abandoned by Cambodian regulars who were underpaid, underfed, undertrained and forced to the front at our behest), and they took over Phnom Penh, the capitol, on April 17, 1975. And that's when they started to make everyone equal.

They said:

Whereas the entire Kampuchean people and the entire Kampuchean Revolutionary Army desire an independent, unified, peaceful, neutral, non-aligned, sovereign Kampuchea enjoying territorial integrity, a national society informed by genuine happiness, equality, justice, and democracy without rich or poor and without exploiters or exploited, a society in which all live harmoniously in great national solidarity and join forces to do manual labour together and increase production for the construction and defence of the country

...and they said:
There must be complete equality among all Kampuchean people in an equal, just, democratic, harmonious, and happy society within the great national solidarity for defending and building the country together.

And then they said that everyone was now a peasant or a soldier, and if you didn't already fall into one of those two categories, you were a peasant. Or dead. Dead was equal, too. And if you didn't know how to do peasant things, like tiling fields or digging ditches or growing rice, the Khmer Rouge was more than happy to oblige you by clubbing you to death with a rifle butt or garotting you with a bit of rope if bullets were scarce (and bullets were always scarce). Your aptitudes or training might be for speaking other languages, thinking deep thoughts, painting pictures, explaining things to others, writing interesting things--no, you were a peasant. And you were equal.

Very, very equal.

No, a society based on equality doesn't really work, and when we talk about our society being based on equality, we don't really mean equality. We mean a society that tries to be fair, a society that doesn't discriminate by race, gender, age or class. A society where there's due process of the law, where everyone gets a vote, where everyone gets a fair shake, or as close to it as we can manage. And some would say that's equality, but it still isn't: a mentally retarded man accused of a crime isn't tried like a capable man and a convicted felon may lose her vote--because we've agreed it wouldn't be fair.

I don't want to sound conceited, and I don't think I'm proud, or at least not vain. But I have smart parents who enjoyed reading and thinking, and who passed those traits on. I had some good luck in going through the Charlotte schools in an era when they were really under the gun to make up for past inequities of a southern school district, and live in a state where affordable higher education has been a traditional priority, resulting in some excellent public universities. I'm not as good-looking or physically fit as some people, but I'm smarter and better educated than many, well-trained for my career and I've had some luck here and there whether I recognized it as such at the time not. It's one thing for me to be humble (I hope I am): but it would be cruel and unconscionable for me to think that everyone had those opportunities. Five days a week I see a lot of people who are the same as me, but different: they're human and they deserve whatever fairness this world can scrape together, but many of them, to put it bluntly, aren't smart, or well-educated or had basically decent parents, or are capable of making good choices, or even had the chance to make good choices. You'd better not look down on any of them--however I may sound in this post, I don't and I'm telling you not to even think about looking down on my people. But I'm not evil or blind enough to think every one of them could have done better but for some mystical failure of will or labor on their part. Some of them are only doing the best they can.

We're not all equal, and never will be. Maybe we can try to be fair instead.


Janiece Murphy Monday, February 25, 2008 at 11:26:00 AM EST  

I love Sandra Day O'Conner. For me, she ranks right up there with Sally Ride as someone to point to for "role-model behavior."

Which kind of proves your point, I think.

I believe that equal opportunity is the key to being fair. To use one of your examples, everyone should have the same opportunitiey to pursue a quality education. If you continue to law school and the subsequent high salary because you're smart and driven, then good for you. If someone else stops after completing trade school because they lack the ability or the inclination, then good for them. You both had the same chance, and to me, that's what's important.

But then, I'm a big ole liberal.

Anne C. Monday, February 25, 2008 at 4:21:00 PM EST  

Wow. Excellent post, Eric.

Fairness and equal opportunity are definitely key.

The next step is pointing out that success can be measured in as many different ways as there are people. So where you start is different, where you end up is different, and how you get there is different too!

John the Scientist Friday, February 29, 2008 at 2:17:00 PM EST  

Eric, I'm not ignoring you. Lunch with Nathan and the Kosovo post chewed up a lot of my time.
I also agree with you more than you think.

But let me start by noting my opposition ot Rawlsian philosphy as I noted in this post.

What looks fair today may not be the optimal system for moving society forward faster, and technologically speaking, the poor in this country live better in many ways than the richest people did in 1789.

A rising tide does float all boats. But that's still no excuse for giving the shaft to people who can't defend themselves today. It's how you go about leveling the field that we probably disagree on.

Eric Friday, February 29, 2008 at 6:08:00 PM EST  

Don't worry, I didn't feel ignored. This was kind of a free-ranging piece that picked up a number of threads, many of which I've expressed elsewhere online or in the meatworld. Your response is welcome, but don't feel obligated. I have quite a lot of things to take care of on top of my new assignment to the role of dancing monkey....

As you've guessed, I am a fan of Rawls. I think the Rawlsian thought experiment is a very good way to begin to reason about what a society should be like. And, as an atheist, it obviously is a route that has appeal for not requiring recourse to morality by decree.

It's true that what looks fair today may not look fair tomorrow. I'm not sure where that gets anyone, though, unless it's used as an argument for inaction. (I recently saw an old interview with Ursula K. Le Guin, on the DVD of the 1980 PBS adaptation of The Lathe Of Heaven, in which she seemed to be advocating just such a position--since change may have unanticipated consequences, it's better to wait; I can't agree with that.)

I also have to say that I find your statement about the relative living conditions of poor and rich then and now to be a bit of a logical feint. The poor now may live better, in some respects, than the rich in 1789. So do the rich. Poverty is a relative issue, not an absolute one. Meat, indoor plumbing, telephones, automobiles, and radios were all once luxuries (and perhaps still are in some parts of the world)--I'm not sure how anyone could argue that they're not necessities in much of modern America.

You're probably right that we disagree more on methods than we do on goals. You seem to be a reasonable man. I'd like to think I'm a reasonable man. I do believe, much as Jefferson did, that there are self-evident truths. (And there's another thinker I value more than you do--I believe you've described him as dangerous; he's something of a minor personal hero to myself.)

Eric Friday, February 29, 2008 at 6:18:00 PM EST  

It's Friday, and I'm a bit tired, bleary and bleak: if anything in the above comment sounded the least bit snotty--I'm having a hard time telling--I apologize. (It's the Jefferson comment that really looks like it didn't come out quite right, but my brain doesn't want to rephrase it for some reason.) Please put it down to some kind of psychic weariness.

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