Play Fair, Unless You’re An Adult.

by: Chris Warren

There was a time in our young lives when the playground was the place where all was right in the world. Rules were simple and disputes passed without too much drama, even if it involved an occasional “do over”. Everybody (usually) had fun; all discord was resolved by the end of recess and everyone went back to class feeling that, for the most part, they got a fair deal.

Post-playgound life is not nearly that simple. There are laws, regulations, and rules, all for the greater goal of making things “fair”. More laws are proposed and passed every year, presumably because the bazillion laws we already have are not enough to achieve a perfect state of fairness. Activists and political factions from the right, left, and upside down fight each other to claim first and loudest that we ordinary citizens are being hustled. Each side will claim the other is lying. Each side has a vested interest in keeping the concept of fairness as blurry as possible. All we need to do is vote for them, or give them money, or sign their petition, and they will fight the injustice and make sure we get a deal that is “fair”.

I have a buddy who was laid off from a good salaried job at a company he had given over fifteen years of his very best efforts to. After a long period of unemployment, he landed a new position that pays about half of what he previously earned and is only slightly better than the job he had as a college student. Professionally and financially, he was set back to the beginning of his career. The bonus kick in the nuts was that a coworker at his old employer, who had the same job title and by any objective measure was about as useful as mudflaps on a canoe, was initially spared the layoff axe and managed to keep his position for another four years before he too was whacked. Four years!

Predictably, the company insists both employees were treated fairly. Every day all across the business world, good employees are dumped at the curb while the professional cockroaches inexplicably survive. My friend’s dignity remains intact but his idea of “fair” will never be the same; the way he was treated is so far removed from the playground justice of his childhood that he’s no longer even in the same galaxy.

Anyone who has watched more than three seconds of network news lately knows that were it not for all the real and perceived unfairness in the world, the networks would have nothing to talk about. Whether it’s business, politics, or sports coverage, there is one common denominator to every single story: People who feel they have been ripped off in one form or another, and what they want done to settle the score. Most of these grievances are legitimate to a degree but the proposed fix often goes way beyond the scope of the original problem. What else explains the thought process of someone who spills hot coffee on themselves and believes in their heart of hearts that several million dollars is a fair settlement for the coffee vendor’s “negligence”?

Grown ups are well aware that the world beyond the playground isn’t so straightforward. Grade school justice works only up to a point. Complex lives require complex rules, although there is a lot of room for arguing about how complex the rules should be and how many of them we need. But for most of us, our sense of what’s right has a pedigree that goes straight back to the playground. There is a nuanced but very real sense of sorrow that the spirit of the playground is lost in the mix of modern adulthood. We need to come back into the galaxy. It should not be so hard to figure out what’s “fair”.