Life Isn’t Fair

Matthew Nguyen-Ngo

I remember being told, “life isn’t fair.” By teachers, parents, or even random adults on the TV or computer screen. It wasn’t always verbatim, “life isn’t fair.” Sometimes it was a variation, like, “it is what it is,” or, “that’s the way things are.” “You just have to suck it up.”

There are two ways to interpret this. The first is a defeatist interpretation. I paraphrase, life isn’t fair, and it sucks, but you’re just going to have to deal with it. There’s nothing that can be done. Life will always be at least a little unfair, so there’s no point in trying to make things fairer. The second is a complacent interpretation. I paraphrase, life is unfair, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I am okay with unfairness. If I encountered something unfair in my life, I wouldn’t mind at all. To me, the second is more worrisome, but both are problematic.

I look at the realities of the world in 2015, and I notice quite a bit of unfairness. Some enter this world in a luxury top-floor penthouse. Some need to take the elevator to get there. Some need to take the stairs. Some have the ladder, and others still are forced to climb the rope.

At first, being an Asian American, I balk at being disadvantaged by Affirmative Action, but then I realize that the average middle class black family has a lower net worth than the average working class white family. I realize that most other post-1965 Asian Americans come from upper middle class families in Asia, and that’s why I, the son of war refugees, am wrongly disadvantaged by Affirmative Action. I then realize that even the Asian Americans who get their college degrees are hired and promoted less than white Americans with similar degrees, so really, Affirmative Action should not be disadvantaging Asian Americans at all.

At first, I vehemently support the death penalty for those guilty of heinous crimes, and then I realize that many who are executed are exonerated later. I realize that the justice system is built around winning and losing, as opposed to determining the truth, and such a system can never be trusted to consistently deliver justice. I realize that prisons benefit from keeping their cells full, and such an arrangement could easily be abused.

I realize that people of different races and different socioeconomic strata are treated differently under the law. A black man selling cigarettes gets effectively the death penalty, whereas a white mass murderer is apprehended and given the chance of a trial. For the crime of killing the black man who was selling cigarettes, the police officer is let off easy. A poor person living with roommates goes to prison for possessing weed, but a company CEO doing crack in his office gets away scot free. I then realize that this is the norm, not the exception.

Then I see the apologists. I see the people saying, I paraphrase, that racism will never die completely, so we should stop talking about it or trying to make it better. I see the people saying, I paraphrase, that there will always be rich people and poor people, so we should stop talking about equal opportunity or trying to make said opportunity more equal. I see the people, angry after the federal legalization of gay marriage, lamenting the loss of their religious right to reject gay marriage. They don’t understand that we as Americans have the right to do whatever we want, unless that action infringes upon the rights of others. I see the people saying, I paraphrase, that although they don’t like the government tapping into their phones, they accept it as the cost of protection.

Then I see the deniers. I see the people saying, I paraphrase, that although racist people exist, racism is a social issue of the past. I see the people saying, I paraphrase, that the justice system does its job effectively, and that those in prison or death row deserve to be there, and those who aren’t deserve to be free. I see the people saying, I paraphrase, that the only ingredient for success is hard work. I suppose the only ingredient for pound cake is flour, then. I see the people saying, I paraphrase, that they don’t mind the government tapping into their phones because they have “nothing to hide.”

Then, I am reminded of every adult in my non-adult life that told me, “life isn’t fair.” If I got a different treatment than a classmate, the teacher would give the excuse, “life isn’t fair.” If I got a punishment inconsistent from what I had received previously, my parents would explain, “life isn’t fair.”

Then I realized that they were right. Shortly afterward, I realized that they were also wrong. It is a fact that life isn’t fair, as evidenced by all the injustices of the world. It is not true that the unfairness of life justifies itself. It could never justify itself. Unfairness is — big surprise — unfair. Unfairness, by definition, cannot justify itself.

I ask, if a referee rigged a basketball game so that one team never got a single penalty shot, would the fans accept the NBA’s statement, “life isn’t fair?” I ask, if two people started a game of chess and one would not let the other place the pawns on the board, would the onlookers accept the reason, “life isn’t fair?”

Even dogs, creatures with weaker powers of reason than humans, understand this basic principle of justice. When a scientist asks one dog to do a trick and rewards it with a treat, the other dog will do the same trick when the scientist asks it to. But when that other dog does not get a treat like the first dog did, it will refuse to do the trick.

How can we, a more intelligent species, fail to understand something that dogs can? The scientist does not shame the second dog for refusing to perform the trick. He or she understands that the dog cannot be expected to do the trick if it knows it will not get the reward. So why do some people expect less advantaged people to continue life as it were, as if the situation is acceptable? How can that be a morally defensible position?

It’s not, and they’re wrong. There, I’m done.

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