Stop Using the ‘F’ Word.

Written By: - Date published: 6:30 am, February 13th, 2018 - 41 comments
Categories: activism, campaigning, class war, Economy, employment, Politics, Unions, useless, wages, workers' rights - Tags: ,

Cross-post of a piece by Nick “Upper Hutt boy in London” Kelly. Blog here.

How often do you hear people grizzling how ‘unfair’ something is?

You hear a child tell their parents that its unfair they won’t buy them lollies. Its not ‘fair’ that your older sibling cheated at a card game. Maybe its not fair that your lottery numbers never get drawn, or that it only rains on the weekend. Fairness is a nebulous cliche far too overused in our society. What is and isn’t fair is entirely subjective. So why on earth do people still run political or social movement campaigns calling for fairness?

In the past I have complained about using fairness in campaign slogans. Many in the trade union movement love to call for “fair pay.” When questioning the wisdom of this in trade union circles I have been accused of being heartless and right wing. Incidentally that notorious right wing theorist Fredrick Engels had similar criticisms of  calls for Fair Pay

In 2011 when I was president of the Wellington Tramways Union in NZ I attended a Council of Trade Unions meeting where plans to campaign against changes to employment law were being made. 4 years earlier the Australian Union movement had run a successful ‘your rights at work’ campaign against attacks defending workers rights against Government attacks.  At the NZ CTU meeting in 2011 we were told that focus group finding were that people responded positively to the the campaign name ‘Fairness at work’. So this slogan was adopted. For a variety of reasons the campaign didn’t fire and the changes went through.* Not helping I still believe, was a weak ineffective campaign slogan. Focus groups basically showed that fairness was the least polarising slogan, but as a campaign demand it proved impotent.

A far more effective campaign that I played a part in a couple of years later was the Wellington City Living Wage Campaign. This campaign replicated similar campaigns in the LondonSan Francisco and elsewhere. In London the campaign won the backing of Conservative London mayor Boris Johnson. The campaign calculates the cost of living in a particular city. This is the pay rate someone would need to pay rent, feed and cloth their children, cover transport costs and generally have a liveable income. Its a tangible, measurable demand that is hard to argue against.

You can’t measure a fair wage. Fairness isn’t tangible or easy to demonstrate. Calling for something like a living wage by contrast is. This is why the living wage campaign has been successful internationally.

Slogans about fairness are overused by far too many political campaigns. Nobel and important campaigns are reduced to the level of a whinging 3 year olds. Fairness campaigns are often coupled with victimhood. These poor vulnerable (insert people and cause here) just need your pity. All people have agency, and in coming together they have power and a collective voice. Instead of wasting this agency by vague calls for fairness, put down some tangible, measurable and most importantly winnable campaign asks. By doing this, things might actually change.

 

*The NZ Labour-led government has announced it will repeal these changes.

41 comments on “Stop Using the ‘F’ Word.”

  1. Incognito 1

    Yes, it’s a misused and abused concept. Yet it’s also (at) the basis of our justice system: fairness, equality, without bias. Unfortunately, I have no time right now, but it would make for an interesting debate. It’s an excellent topic that crosses over into discussions about capitalism, meritocracy, or neoliberalism for that matter, but I’m sensitive to possible derailment.

    • Bill 1.1

      Of course it crosses into capitalism etc. Maybe the point (I don’t know) is that it’s pathetic and not a little insane to suggest we struggle to attain a “fair” degree of exploitation.

      I mean, what the fuck would that even be or look like….?

      “Thankyou boss. For exploiting me in a fair manner/ to a degree I think is fair”?!!!!

      It’s nuts and deeply offensive to a sense of dignity.

      • Of course it crosses into capitalism etc. Maybe the point (I don’t know) is that it’s pathetic and not a little insane to suggest we struggle to attain a “fair” degree of exploitation.

        Which is the point that Engels made.

  2. UncookedSelachimorpha 2

    Excellent post! We should focus on merits other than ‘fairness’, which is often used to justify things that on closer analysis, are deeply unjust / unfair (e.g. a few having extreme wealth while many others are in poverty).

    An appeal to fairness is the moral foundation of many right-wing views. And it must be acknowledged that fairness is deeply ingrained in human psychology, from a young age. There are plenty of studies showing a sense of fairness is inherent in children, e.g.:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2015/11/19/how-culture-shapes-our-sense-of-fairness-kids-everywhere-cant-stand-getting-less-but-in-some-places-they-dont-like-getting-more/?utm_term=.bfda3d7e5c98

    https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2015/11/how-fairness-develops-in-kids-around-the-world/416520/

    Even my two dogs seem to have a sensitivity to fair treatment (try giving just one a treat!).

    I don’t dislike fairness as a concept, but the problem is people struggle to identify what is and isn’t fair. You may have worked hard and done well for yourself, and so feel it is unfair to pay some of your wealth to support less well off people. But it is easy to forget the good fortune you have experienced along the way, and that a mere twist of fate could have had you maimed in a car accident at 17, born with a severe disability or mental illness, or some other misfortune.

    • Bill 2.1

      Question. Why would anyone fight for fairness in an environment predicated on inequity (the boss/worker relationship)? It doesn’t make any sense, and implicitly accepts the right of the boss to exploit – they just have to do it “fairly” (whatever the fuck that means).

  3. Sanctuary 3

    The poor already know nothing in this world is fair. If you hear the phrase “It’s not fair” you can be practically guaranteed it’ll be coming from a middle class mouth.

    • Antoine 3.1

      Betcha i can find zillions of examples of Standardistas talking about unfairness on past threads, and I doubt they’re all middle class

      A.

  4. Antoine 4

    I disagree.

    ‘Fairness’ along with ‘reasonableness’ are powerful arguments in my experience.

    Just one example, think of the capital gains tax. You can run the argument that it is _unfair_ that job income is taxed, but gains from your investment property are not taxed. That to me is a persuasive argument that can help the case for the CGT.

    A.

    • Bill 4.1

      How’s about “unacceptable”? Too…challenging?

      • Antoine 4.1.1

        ‘Fair’ and ‘reasonable’ can pass as objective standards if you squint. That gives them some power in an argument.

        ‘Unacceptable’ seems more subjective. What is unacceptable to me may be quite fine for you. That means it has little persuasive power.

        Of course ‘unacceptable’ is great if you just want to let off steam or you are among like minded people, but I don’t think it has much force when you are talking to someone who sees the world differently.

        A.

        • Bill 4.1.1.1

          The post was about campaigning around union matters, not some fucking polite conversation over elevensies.

          Ripping people off is unacceptable, and there can never be anything “fair” about it. It’s intrinsically (to use that insipid term) unfair.

  5. Nick K 5

    What??!?!

    The Left has been using the word “fair” (it’s negative actually, “unfair” ) for centuries.

    Why the change of heart?

    • One Anonymous Bloke 5.1

      Newsflash! This Just in! Nick K comes to bleedin’ obvious conclusion.

      Hold onto your seats everyone:

      “The Left” is not a person!

      • Leonhart Hunt 5.1.1

        and almost entirely meaningless these days, politicians have muddled Left and right policies for years, it used to be clear cut, policies & party’s were clearly left or right, people were left or right, but now we have tactical voting and parties have adopted traditional left and right policies to garner votes from those that traditionally sit near the middle changing affiliations as policies swing one way and then the other.

        this changed many things, Sensible politics inevitably veered toward the Centre ground because extreme and ideological policies never really work, but recently we have been seeing Extreme ideology back again(Brexit, election of trump”

        • adam 5.1.1.1

          I love how pseudo leftists eventually out themselves.

          • Leonhart Hunt 5.1.1.1.1

            I did not vote last election as I could not decide between parties, I liked some of national, some of labour, and a few green polices – none of the parties engaged me enough to solicit my vote (and I do not believe in tactical voting), so if that makes me, left or right or something else altogether who knows because left and right is a meaningless term often used in a derogatory fashion to demean or belittle dialogue.

            It’s like a kid calling another kid a poopy-butt.

            Also, none of the parties had cohesive digital strategies, nor anything reflection rising privacy concerns regarding digital permanence or cyber security (NZ new cyber Division is a joke with no real power)

            None of the housing polices were cohesive enough, with vague timelines, justice reform was non-existent, social welfare was vague with no real strategy, tax reform/avoidance is still a joke.

            • adam 5.1.1.1.1.1

              Really, so all the unionist killed in droved in places like Columbia don’t mean anything?

              Socialism is now right wing in your world?

              God, I’m tired of people like you Leonhart hunt. Seriously this nafferious centre you talk of, this muddling of stuff up, it’s just so working people don’t get listened to.

              People like you carry on in this way as an excuse to carry on the nasty shit of grinding working people down. No left or right – that tosser bs hard right meme is so 2009.

              • Leonhart Hunt

                you think voting for left or right changes anything? the actual political policies change stuff (in NZ)? the party’s baseline doesn’t. Just because you vote “left” doesn’t mean you get always socialist reforms same with the right.

                Vote for party policies and badger them to see it enacted, but personally I find government very in-effective for big changes, if you want worker rights you need to get companies to change not legislate it.

                Example, NZ is nowhere near adding policy for a living wage yet many companies are doing just that, to show they are supporting workers (and because many have started choosing companies products who do make this change, so it is a marketing tool) right to a decent wage? is this mandated, is it govt policy? no its public shaming that changed this policy.

                personal activism and altruism. is more effective than govt change in most cases now party’s only look at the next election instead of long term policy/political change.

                don’t get me wrong its not a waste of time, but if your waiting for the govt to fix anything, your in for a very, very long wait.

                • adam

                  Odd, I’m not arguing for party politics, and never have.

                  I’m arguing for socialism. Which by definition is left wing.

                  Your arguments by comparison, are more self reliant hard right arguments which hurt working people.

                • weka

                  “you think voting for left or right changes anything? the actual political policies change stuff (in NZ)? the party’s baseline doesn’t. Just because you vote “left” doesn’t mean you get always socialist reforms same with the right.”

                  I think voting left does change things, because the only way we get a more left wing govt is to vote for them. I don’t count Labour in that.

                  Adam doesn’t vote btw.

  6. Zorb6 6

    Easy word association-‘Fair Trade’.These products have an identity because of this ‘nebulous’ word.’alls fair in love and war’.Not ambiguous at all imo.

    • Leonhart Hunt 6.1

      actually we have have conventions of combat that do make war nebulous, there are things you cannot do, same with “love” many people have red lines they won’t cross.

      SO “all fair in love and war” really means, yes, you can do this if you follow the rules, which you may or may not know.

      • Zorb6 6.1.1

        So,who sets the rules then?

        • Leonhart Hunt 6.1.1.1

          For war? Committees/nations with the biggest guns and often break them (see US torture or the use of phosphorus rounds on civilian populations which are both war crimes.. yet not for them.)

          For Love, who knows, you, me, bob who pervs thought the windows. The law defines many but they do change, homosuxality used to be a crime in NZ (interesting lesbian relations wern’t) but people have lines they won’t cross. The idea of fairness is very Abstract, there really are not and at the same time are many, many rules, its like schrodinger’s cat.

          • Leonhart Hunt 6.1.1.1.1

            to expand on this “its like schrodinger’s cat.” you are both in trouble and not in trouble depending on what timeframe or who perceives your actions.

            the same goes for “fairness” hindsight often changes what we perceive to be fair and the idea is very malleable what you may believe to be a rule now that will never change will almost certainly change at some point in the future.

  7. patricia bremner 7

    Usually when semantics are used, it is to distract. Now what are we missing here?

  8. Nick K (obviously not me), people on the left have been using the word ‘fair’ for years. In case you also didn’t notice, the left usually don’t win. In the english speaking world throughout the 20th century the left lost more elections than it won. In New Zealand National have won 2/3 of elections since the end of the Second World War. To change this, tangible and winnable campaigns are needed. Not nebulous calls for abstract concepts.

    Antoine, I don’t believe saying that its unfair that there isn’t a capital gains tax is very effective. “A capital gains tax will help ending the housing crisis by stopping speculators inflating the housing market” is much more effective than saying “oooooh its just so unfair”.

    • Antoine 8.1

      I disagree.

      Apart from anything else, if you are trying to convince someone of the need for a capital gains tax, they probably own a house. In which case ‘inflating the housing market’ probably actually sounds pretty good to them.

      A.

      • Antoine 8.1.1

        Ps if the person you’re arguing with doesn’t support a CGT, they probably won’t believe that a CGT would bring down house prices anyway

  9. reason 9

    The word ‘Fair’ is not a strong one … it’s unfortunate but a life time of conditioning, often starting with our Parents telling us ‘life’s not fair’, and then reinforced by living in a world that is obviously not fair… has undermined it .

    Good and Bad … or Right and Wrong are stronger words and emotional concepts …….. I try to argue fairness within their frame……

    Most people do not want to be bad, or do wrong …. former national party cabinet ministers excepted.

  10. Sparky 10

    I think we need reasonable govt before we can expect anything to change. Talk of fairness is wasted on people who can pretty much do as they like.

    So I’d start by suggesting we need to overhaul our electoral system and get rid of the Westmonster model if favour of something that keeps these people accountable.

    After that no need to talk of fairness it will be a given (well at least for the most part).

  11. Antoine 11

    An afterthought,

    Equity is a specific form of fairness (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equity_(economics)). Are you going to stop using the word ‘equity’ as well? If so, how are you supposed to put together a gender equity pay claim?

    A.

    • One Anonymous Bloke 11.1

      Yes, equity means something specific. Please try and keep up with the premise.

      • Antoine 11.1.1

        Well if you’re going to throw away fairness but keep equity, then this is all just splitting hairs.

        A.

        • One Anonymous Bloke 11.1.1.1

          Do you really not understand the argument?

          From the OP:

          Fairness isn’t tangible or easy to demonstrate

          If you think the word “equity” is intangible or difficult to demonstrate, I suggest you read the judgement in Bartlett v Terranova.

          Or keep working on your doctoral thesis in Tetrapyloctomy. It’s your speciality, after all.

  12. Siobhan 12

    I have no issue with the ‘Living wage’ in principle, but one thing I just do not understand…..You seem quite pleased to note Boris Johnson’s approval of “Living Wage’…is this the same Boris who said ” economic inequality was useful because it encouraged people to work harder.”?
    Infact the full quote is “I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses and so on that it is a valuable spur to economic activity.”

    Why oh why do we revel in the approval of these sorts of people? Is there not some little alarm bell that rings and says “These people want something different from us…if they approve of this initiative there is something wrong”

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10479466/Boris-Johnson-some-people-are-too-stupid-to-get-on-in-life.html

    And it must be noted, Boris doesn’t consider his wage to be a “Living Wage’

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/boris-johnson-ministers-salary-not-enough-a7976641.html

  13. Nick Kelly 13

    Sobhan, I think the point re Boris is that that campaign built a level of support that meant a Tory mayor had to implement this policy to be re-elected. It’s not about getting his approval, it’s about winning pay increases for low paid despite hostile conditions.

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