In Defense of Favoritism

November 14, 2012

Chronicle Review:

“But Dad, that’s not fair! Why does Keaton get to kill zombies, and I can’t?”

“Well, because you’re too young to kill zombies. Your cousin Keaton is older than you, so that’s why he can do it. You’ll get nightmares.”

“That’s sooo not fair!”

“Next year, after your birthday, I’ll let you kill zombies.”

It’s not exactly Little House on the Prairie,but this is a real conversation between my 8-year-old son and me. Age-ratings on zombie-killing video games are just one of modern life’s great injustices, according to my son.

Every parent has heard the f-word, fairness, intoned ad nauseam by their negotiating kids. My own son was an eloquent voice for egalitarianism, even before he could tie his shoes or tell time. Of course, it’s not exactly universal equality that he and other kids are lobbying for, but something much more self-interested.

Kids learn early on that an honest declaration of “I’m not getting what I want” holds little persuasion for parents. So they quickly figure out how to mask their egocentric frustrations with the language of fairness. An appeal to an objective standard of fairness will at least buy some bargaining time for further negotiations. This is not entirely duplicitous on the part of the child, who is often legitimately confused and cannot easily distinguish his private sufferings from larger and clearer social imbalances.

Fairness, however, is not the be-all and end-all standard for justice, nor is it the best measure of our social lives. As a philosopher, I’ve noticed a tremendous amount of conceptual confusion in our use of fairness. And though we’re hearing a lot of the language of fairness hurled around lately in political rhetoric, it often hinders real conversation and debate more than it helps. Most people, for example, assume that the opposite of fairness is selfishness, and since selfishness is manifestly terrible, no one but a hapless Ayn Rand devotee would be so foolish as to critique fairness. But the real opposite of fairness is favoritism— filial, tribal, nepotistic partiality—not egoistic selfishness. If that’s true, then a lot of us—on the left and the right—are unwitting daily sinners against fairness. And that’s not a bad thing.

We confuse our kids and ourselves about fairness. Most of the stories of children’s culture pull a sleight-of-hand trick. They regularly address two worthy qualities that every child should cultivate—sharing andopen-mindedness (toward people who are different). But while we all approve of the great virtues of sharing and diversity, we are informed that these are matters of fairness and equality—which, in point of fact, they are not.

Reducing a child’s greediness is not the same as making her egalitarian. One can eliminate greed entirely and still remain preferential with one’s goods, one’s time, and one’s affection. Like the characters in many kid’s stories, our children are encouraged to spread the wealth, whether it be money, magic beans, or candy.

Greed is a terrible vice, and generosity must be cultivated in order to counteract it. But a child should not be expected to distribute her wealth to just anyone on the playground. Even if she has enough candy for the whole playground population, each kid does not have a moral claim on her to receive some candy. A child might be so generous, in fact, that she gives away all her candy and does not retain some for herself. But the quality of her generosity—the strength of her virtue—is not compromised by the fact that she gave it all to her five friends. She is still a very generous kid. A person might give everything she has, in fact, to one other person and thereby show profound generosity. This demonstrates the independence of generosity (or sharing) from fairness, even though the two are often conflated in our cultural conversation. A person can be both highly generous and highly biased at the same time. Being in favor of favoritism, then, is not being against sharing.

Teaching kids to share and calling it fairness is at best a confusion and at worst a deception. A similar bait-and-switch in contemporary childhood education is teaching kids to appreciate diversity but erroneously calling this virtue of open-mindednessfairness. Those two values are so commonly confused that any critique is immediately met with charges of prejudice, discrimination, racism, sexism, and bigotry. But having favorites and having an open mind about differences are not mutually exclusive.

Obviously xenophobia needs addressing and fixing in schools. But a popular training curriculum in Europe, “Diversity and Equity in Early Childhood Training,” follows American schools in equating open-mindedness with fairness, and it sees all tribal tendencies as the enemy. Favoritism and bias are demonized and treated as equivalent to bigotry. For example, the manual recommends exercises for kids using an “anti-bias persona doll.” The anti-bias persona doll started in America but has also been embraced in European diversity training. The method uses dolls of various ethnic appearances to tell stories of mistreatment. Kids are asked to help rectify scenarios wherein the persona has suffered some prejudice and mistreatment.

So far, so good, but children are taught that all bias is unfair, and that fairness isequity, which is possible only after bias has been eradicated. Teachers join in this fight against favoritism and bias—the manual claims that the best way to fight against the evils of racism, sexism, and social-power imbalance is to use what it calls the “anti-bias” approach. In workshops, teachers must find their own biases (in a therapeutic session) and then root them out.

I want to argue something counter-intuitive here. Contrary to all this received wisdom, open-mindedness is actually compatible with favoritism and bias. Starting in the 1950s, researchers began running children through a variety of racial-preference play tests and “trait assignment” tasks. The Preschool Racial Attitudes Measure (1975) and the Multiple-Response Racial Attitudes Measure (1988) continued this method, asking kids to assign positive and negative traits to images of black and white children. Researchers wanted to see if kids assign traits, like “nice” or “mean” or “dirty” or “clean,” based solely on racial features…

Read it all.

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