BBC Home > BBC News > World

Life's unfair? Do something! Or just get used to it...

05 August 10 10:58
Baby having tantrum
By Michael Goldfarb
Journalist and broadcaster

The word "fair" has been jangling loudly in my ears recently.

Out there in the zeitgeist, the new coalition government in Britain can't use "fair" often enough. In America, liberal commentators are trying to reclaim the word from "fair and balanced" Fox News.

Meanwhile, at my house, my almost-five-year-old daughter has discovered its use.

"I want an ice cream."


"That's not fair!!!"

Or: "I want to watch TV."

"Not now."


"Because I said so."

"That's not fair!!!!!!!!!"

The first time she complained, "That's not fair!", my response was immediate and required no thought.

"Life's not fair. Get used to it, baby."

The response surprised me a little, as soon as it passed my lips. I have lived in England for almost a quarter of a century and have become a cultural hybrid but here was pure American sentiment coming up from the depths of my subconscious.

Destructive change

"Fair" is one of those concepts that doesn't quite mean the same thing on either side of the Atlantic.

The difference in use of the word in Britain and the US is a more profound marker of how dissimilar the two peoples are than the old cliches about driving on the wrong side of the road, calling private schools "public schools", and the temperature at which beer is drunk.

Working through both strands of cultural DNA in my hybrid nature, I think I know why there is such a huge difference.

America is a profoundly unsettled place. Whether you buy into the notion of the creative destruction of the American brand of capitalism or put it down to the fact that it's a damn big place and easy to move around in, American society doesn't stay the same for very long.

Change - wanted or unwanted - comes from all directions and very often individuals find their lives overwhelmed through forces beyond their control.

In America, it won't do much good to sit weeping that "It's not fair!" when destructive change comes to your front door. You will get little sympathy.

When events crush you, you are expected to pack up your belongings, move somewhere else and start over. Is that cold, cruel and harsh? Tough, "Life's not fair!"

Britain is a much more settled society, nestled into a smaller geographical area.

When economic or social disruption comes there are not a lot of places for people to go, so, for a very long time - centuries - it has been necessary to emphasise "fairness" as a kind of social glue. A fair society is a tacit part of the British social contract.


The process by which the meaning of fair is arrived at is about the same on both sides of the Atlantic. It is analogous to the way 10-year-old boys make up rules for a ball game.

There is an intuitive knowledge of what the boundaries of the game should be. They are set at the point just before the contest would otherwise degenerate into anarchy.

But even here there is a difference. American schoolboys know that winning is the only thing and define fairness accordingly. Winners get to stay on court. Losers walk. That seems fair.

In Britain, for centuries the definition of fairness was devised by boys from public schools (in the British sense) - from places like Eton and Westminster.

For people who had, for the most part, inherited their positions of privilege, the outcome of the competition was not important. Playing the game well, not trying too hard to win, giving the other chap a chance, took precedence.

Over the last century, the working class, via the Labour Party, has forced its way into the caucus that defines fairness. It has brought a utilitarian strain to the discussion.

This led to the creation of the welfare state after World War II - which, 65 years later, remains the framework for a fair and just British society.

Unfair times

The degree to which British society adheres to its own idea of fair play is profound and politicians mess with it at their peril.

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher tried to change Britons' idea of fairness to something closer to the American definition. She failed utterly.

Her plan for a flat rate poll tax in which the rich, middle class and the poor would pay the same local tax was denounced as "unfair" and led to mass demonstrations by people from all levels of society and ultimately her removal from office by her own party.

In any case, "fair" is having its moment in the political sun. Primarily because we live in manifestly "unfair" times.

The past three years have seen the economies in both countries contract violently because of shenanigans by financial speculators hiding behind the legitimacy of our banking institutions.

The banks were bailed out by taxpayers.

Subsequently both economies went into deep recession.

Now the banker/speculators are once again paying themselves massive bonuses. Meanwhile, the people who bailed them out live in a world of rising unemployment, and in Britain we have entered a new age of austerity.

No wonder the coalition government in Britain has made "fair" its watchword.

Even if its definition is wobbly.

Once again it is the public schoolboys who are updating the word's meaning. At his first joint news conference with Prime Minister David Cameron (Eton), following the creation of the coalition, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (Westminster), leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, tried to explain his definition of liberalism.

"Ensuring that everyone has the chance, no matter who they are and where they are from, to be the person they want to be. To live the life they want to live," he said.

"You can call it fairness. You can call it responsibility. You can call it liberalism. Whatever words you use the change it will make to your life is the same."

Fairness=Responsibility=Liberalism. It remains to be seen if something so woolly will take root in Britain.

Forced resignation

Meanwhile, in an America that seems to be at boiling point, the focus of discussion on the word "fair" is centred on yet another controversy fuelled by Fox News, the Rupert Murdoch-owned 24-hour news channel.

Since its launch in 1996, the channel's motto has been "Fair and Balanced", the implication being that other sources of news, like the New York Times, CNN and the BBC are unfair and biased.

Fox News is led by Roger Ailes, who was a campaign consultant to Ronald Reagan among other Republicans. He has created a channel with hosts like Glenn Beck who, exactly a year ago, claimed that President Obama "has a deep-seated hatred of white people".

Under the banner of fairness, it has sought out examples of black racism. Most recently it aired footage of an African-American woman, Shirley Sherrod, an official in the Department of Agriculture, giving a speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

She is seen saying she had denied a white farmer a government grant.

Turns out the footage, which first appeared on a conservative blog, was edited and her remarks taken out of context. Ms Sherrod actually was using the story of the farmer to tell of her struggle to overcome her own prejudices. In fact, she had approved the grant to the farmer.

The full footage of her speech only resurfaced after she had been forced to resign.

Fairness for all?

This has created a tempest in America over the the past week or two. Liberal columnists are trying to take back the word "fair".

E J Dionne in the Washington Post wrote: "The mainstream media and the Obama administration must stop cowering before a right wing that has persistently forced its propaganda to be accepted as news by convincing traditional journalists that 'fairness' requires treating extremist rants as 'one side of the story'."

Frank Rich in the New York Times, criticising Fox and the Obama White House for believing the story, wrote: "Meanwhile, the majority of Americans, who believe in fundamental fairness for all, grapple with the poisonous residue left behind by the many powerful people of all stripes who served as accessories to a hi-tech lynching."

I'm not sure I agree with Rich's claim that Americans want "fundamental fairness for all". I think history shows Americans want fundamental fairness for all who are just like them. For everyone else: if life is not fair, that's tough.

Michael Goldfarb is a journalist and broadcaster who has lived in London since 1985. Formerly with National Public Radio, he is now the London correspondent of

A selection of your comments appears below.

I definitely think there is MORE fairness in U.S than rest of the world put together. Though I am only a visitor I am touched by the responses I get during all my visits to shopping malls, bars and national parks. My view is 100% supported by the news that 38 U.S Billionaires have pledged more than HALF of their wealth for charity! Such a goodwill gesture can not be replicated in any other country.

Sid, Fremont, U.S

The word "fair," like the word "justice," has been stretched so far and in so many directions that it really simply seems to mean "I am in favor of this." As to Mrs. Thatcher's poll tax, it was not a flat rate. A flat rate would apply the same percentage to all payers, while a poll tax charges the same amount to all payers.

James Wilson, Chicago, USA

I was raised & believe that life is unfair & that is fine. I am not well off in any way. I have no savings & work every day & will till I die. That is life, get over it. Only lame people want fairness. You get what you earn & nothing more, or less. Rich people should be proud they are rich & poor people should work like dogs to get out of the hole they are in. "In life there are winners & losers, it aint no big deal". I am fine with that. People who whine about fair, should be to to shut up!

David Rubeo, Westminster, Colorado USA

Growing up in the 1960's, I did not find life very fair. You were born into a social class and pretty much stayed in it. This fairness in life doctrine I was not aware of until I had a child of my own. It was part of school ciriculum and social culture for this generation. Do not know who fostered this idea but this economic collapse is putting a end to it.

Lyell Wilson, Virginia, USa

In America, if you want fairness, you'd best be born rich, lucky and or a certified genius... or else move to another country.

Matt Kuhns, Lakewood, Ohio, USA

As someone who lived in England for two years (Maidstone, Kent), but now resides State-side full-time, I have to agree completely with Mr. Goldfarb. A light turned on in my head as I read his article. Americans really do devalue "fairness" in their society. I particularly agree with Mr. Goldfarb's contention that we do it because of how unsettled we are. When FEMA handed out stipend-relief for Hurricane Katrina a good chunk of the population decided to leave New Orleans for good (especially since it was apparent that the Federal government wasn't going to do anything for New Orleans). A lot of people descried this as tragic, but most of the country figured it to be perfectly reasonable. Along with devaluing fairness, Americans really devalue "place" and geography as being important.

Nathan Sweet, Seattle, USA

You're right in America, it's not fair, and that's exactly how we like it. Thomas Jefferson (one of those men who said to hell with England) writes "There is nothing more unequal, than the equal treatment of unequal people." We offer equal protection under the law, not equality through laws. Now that's fair.

Nathan Fisher, Cleveland, Ohio USA

I think part of the cultural difference is that Americans tend to place a very high value on self reliance and results while looking down on those who are constantly seeking handouts. It's accepted that life is generally not fair and that if you don't like the situation you're in, YOU are expected to do something about it and not wait on someone else to come help you.

Jeff, Bradford, USA

I'm 13 and life is all ready unfair. Not as if it was fair when I was 12, 11, or any other previous age. Despite which ever country your from life isn't fair. Some people might say that another country is more "fair" than theirs, but even so it's still "unfair". Every disaster that has ever happened in human history wasn't mourned upon for more than a year or more. We just got over it so we are expected to do so. The human race had some hard times, but hell we got over them. Most peoples lives (including mine) are "unfair", we are expected to get over it. How else are we to advance?

Jay Baars, Watertown, Wisconsin, USA

Certainly, life is not fair and it never will be. We can, however, all work toward being more compassionate and incorporate the ideas of "playing the game well, not trying too hard to win and giving the other chap a chance."

Chris Stordahl, Moscow, Idaho, US

I resent the comments made about Fox News and the Shirley Sherrod story. Fox did not break that story - Andrew Breitbart did. The White House chose to fire Ms. Sherrod without getting the full story, so do not blame Fox News for a crime they did not commit. As far as "Fair and Balanced" is concerned, when Fox News first came on air they were (and remain) one of the only news sources willing to take on stories the liberal media would not touch. Voicing more than one side of a story? That is my definition of fair and balanced.

Caitlin, Washington, DC

Consider the fine English word "normality". In the Uk this is common and correct usage. It conjures up an image of a continuous state of being, like reality. The American English term, however, is "normalcy", which, like pregnancy is a stable state, in development but bound to come to an emotional end sometime soon.

David Chorley, Tulsa Oklahoma USA

I think Michael's criticism of Fox News is entirely appropriate and I found his analysis of the word 'fair' compared between the UK and the US fascinating, but his very last statement about what Americans want was a far too sweeping statement that would have been appropriate only if he qualified it to a specific group such as the right wing. The American left is far more utilitarian and shares many of views of fairness as our British counterparts.

Ryan Lessard, Manchester, NH USA

It's not fair but it is generous! That I should get to live and work in the USofA. Free is better than fair.

Loni Barnett, San Angelo, TX USA

I for one am sick of hearing people whine about what's 'fair' and what isn't. In American grade school if you bring a piece of candy for one friend you have to bring it for every student in the class. Why? I don't care about the other kids so why should I provide for them. I think it is this entitlemet factor we stress in schools that makes Americans bitter about the whole 'fairness'. To me life isn't with it and enjoy.

Alyse Kainz, Albuquerque, NM USA

I don't think "fairness" is different in the USA because of how unsettled we are. I think it has more to do with American history. Europeans are very steeped in history, in class differences, even in royalty. It's different for Americans, because of how young our country is and how it came to be. From a very early age, American children are taught that with enough hard work, anyone can become a billionaire, an astronaut, or even the president. Children are taught that every wave of immigrants that came here, came because of the promise that no matter what they were in their home country, they could be successful here. On the other hand, that creates a culture that, subconsciously, thinks that those who fall behind or don't have as much aren't working hard enough. "Life's not fair? You've got the freedom to do something about it!"

Jessica Arnold, Augusta, Georgia, USA

I'd just like to take an opportunity to share my perspective, as an American and a conservative. We tend to believe here in equal opportunity for all, not equal outcomes. And that compassion is at the heart of any healthy society, but responsible compassion is generally undertaken from person to person, not from government bureaucracy to person. This is what I would say we (historically as a country) have believed, and what has made us strong... that calls upon each able-bodied person to work hard for the good of themselves, their family, community and country. And having the opportunity to be rewarded for your own effort is a valuable freedom, for which we are grateful. And these freedoms allow us to be extremely productive, when unfettered by strong burdens to have a government bureaucracy administer fairness for us. Clearly an American slant... just what I promised :)

daveg, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

Suffering is inevitable. Misery is optional.

Bear Albrecht, San Antonio, New Mexico, USA

The meaning of fair as defined in the dictionary is definite.The meaning of fair in usage is variable.

Michael Hackett, Sevenoaks. UK

Of course, Shakespeare was right - fair is foul and foul is fair. For instance, what is the difference between the workshy wellfair state leech whose sheer idleness is bailed out at every turn, and the speculator whose deluded greed is bailed out just as inevitably? Little. The spectrum of our society has imploded, such that the captain of the economic cruisliner has been exposed as the ragamuffin stowing away in the hold. It took a hit from an iceberg to discover that British fairness is an elaborate illusion. I do welcome a syncretism between the idea that reward is gained by hard work, and the idea that it's not very healthy to then devour the entire pie by yourself.

Turya, London, UK

I believe only the British government would try (and fail) to remove winners and losers from school sports events in case they hurt the feelings of those too sensitive. Having read this report, I now wonder where that idea came from? Perhaps the British sense of fairness together with political correctness and health & safety is creating a culture that is making more of the British mediocrity incapable of standing up for themselves. Maybe this is the proof that Britain is now almost a 'nanny state'.

Ian, Warwickshire, United Kingdom

When I was a child I said to my mother, 'Thats not fair'. She said to me 'Life's not fair'. Now I am old I know that's true. Fate owes nothing to me, or you.

Stuart Downie, London, England

If everyone in Britain loved the Welfare State and held utopian ideals about equality of outcome, we wouldn't now have a centre-right government. Once again the metropolitan elite look no further than the boundaries of the cities in which they live. Meritocracy is the closest thing there is to 'fairness'.

Paul, North Yorkshire

The difference ma lie in the fact that Americans are people who, when faced with unfairness in their native countries, got up and left, rather than staying and changing their society. I'm not suggesting one is better than the other, just that this simple observation seems to align quite neatly with the different notions of fairness.

Dan Hillier, Edinburgh

'Fairness' is an essentially meaningless term. From the oppressed, it is slave morality, a plea for things they can't win for themselves. From the oppressors, it is a bromide, a verbal crumb of comfort that can't be taken to the bank. Living in a country where those richest one thousand have a combined fortune of £333.5 billion, it might be argued that a 'fair' solution would be to grab the money from those kinds of people, rather than me, you, and the rest of us 'ordinary' working folk. The richest would doubtless disagree. Nature is about a struggle for resources, and we are part of nature. There can't be anything 'fair' about it.

Adam, Wallasey, Merseyside

I think the writer's characterisation of the difference between the US and UK political attitudes to fairness is quite inaccurate. While America likes to promote itself as a red-toothed anarchistic Wild West where you're on your own when you fail, the truth is actually nothing like that. Thanks mostly to rises under Republican presidents,, Federal spending on healthcare for the poor and elderly is 7.4% of GDP - Britain's NHS is only 7.2. Also it has always amused me that the first thing you see when you leave the airport in the US is a sign in your taxi proudly telling you that the fares have been fixed by the state. The invisible hand of Adam Smith has been cut off and replaced with the highly visible robot arm of Government. Much of the politically correct baggage in our culture today originates in the US, particularly Harvard, where multiculturalism was invented and developed and then exported around the world.

Daniel Earwicker, Reading, UK

Here's my take on 'fairness' - it has to be reciprocal. If my country says to me when I am going through a rough time: "life is unfair, tough luck" and refuses to help me, then why should I run to help my country at a time of war or other emergency? Why should I bother being civil, patriotic or cooperative? If society does not care about me, then why should I care about society? That's 'fair' isn't it? So if we want a stable country, then some form of 'contract of fairness' between government and people is needed. Perhaps this is the European view, but it seems logical to me.

Al, Hastings, UK

Life's unfair? Do something!

Share this

Related BBC sites