It's Unfair (January 2023)

It’s not fair. Life’s not fair. It’s unkind, it’s unjust, it’s unfair. As the man in black says in The Princess Bride “Life is pain, highness, anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” And I’m not selling anything. It’s fine for me, of course, I’m male, and white, and middle class – in a lot of life’s unfairnesses I come out on top. It’s fine for you too: you’re clever, and young, and mostly healthy – you come out on top pretty often too. It’s fine for us: we live in a peaceful country where bombs and shootings are a rarity, where there is free education and opportunities – compared with many people we all come out on top. I’m not sure fine is the word, but just to be born in the 21st century is a privilege of health care, and life expectancy, and food provision – compared with most of history everyone comes out on top. But that doesn’t make it any more fair. Because it’s not fair, and I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise.

This half term is set apart in the school calendar for looking beyond our studies, beyond ourselves. It’s called Resilience for a Better Tomorrow and what I want to do, starting this morning, is to think about how we might live in our unfair world. Today I have one approach to avoid and one to embrace. Let me start with the one to avoid – and let me start by telling you how I fail to avoid it. You know we’re partnered with Westminster School – I don’t know how much you know about that partnership, a lot of it goes on behind the scenes, but it means that over the last nine years I’ve spent quite a lot of time there, and quite a lot of time with those people – and they’re great, generous, hospitable, kind, clever – and also privileged, and sometimes I think I’d like some of that privilege. They have their assemblies here too – you probably knew that – but what you probably didn’t know is that they don’t come round the front like us – there’s a special tunnel that leads through the cloisters from their school into the Abbey. And I see that tunnel and I think – I’d like one of those – it’s not fair that we don’t have a tunnel! And if you go through that tunnel you find yourself in Yard – it’s their playground, surrounded by buildings hundreds of years old and looking out at the Victoria tower at the end of the Houses of Parliament with the Union Jack flying against the sky. It is, to my mind, the best view in London. And sometimes I look at that yard and think – I’d like one of those. It’s not fair.

I call this feeling Yard Envy and I hope that you agree with me that it’s ridiculous. We are favoured out of all the schools in the country to have our assemblies in Westminster Abbey, to have our school within sight of Big Ben and I have the nerve to complain that it’s not fair that we don’t have a tunnel or a yard? So that’s the first thing – don’t get Yard Envy, or rather, when you do, mock yourself for it. Don’t look at those who are better off and think I’d like one of those, it’s not fair. This doesn’t mean don’t work to make things better – I’m not suddenly trying to talk you out of ambition after having encouraged it for the last nine years – it’s right to strive for more, just not to wallow in envy – it’s ridiculous, it doesn’t help anyone.

But let’s stay with that ambition – part of that ambition is to make the world fairer – on a micro scale this means making sure that we treat people equally, treat them fairly; on a larger scale it means campaigning for those who lack our advantages; and over a lifetime I think it means using our skills and abilities to change society. That’s easy to say and hard to do – and one of the reasons it’s hard is that whilst we can be painfully aware of when life is unfair and we’ve come off badly, it’s easy to be blind to the situations that are unfair but benefit us. I don’t know if any of you were nodding along when I said it was fine for me but bristled when I said it was also fine for you, but I bet some of you did, a bit - you’d hardly be human if you didn’t. We like to make sure we’re treated equally, by which we mean at least equally; we like to campaign for the rights of people who are like us, for groups we’re part of; we change society so it’s better for us, or people like us, or people we like – we can, and should, try to avoid these tendencies, and we certainly shouldn’t be blind to them.

And so we have Resilience for a Better Tomorrow – a time to peer into our blind spots. A time to think about people who aren’t like us. A time to learn about places and people that we might not otherwise know about, to hear stories that don’t always cut through into our lives. A time to stop and think about whether some of our assumptions are unfair, whether we’ve allowed ourselves to believe that we deserve our good fortune and therefore are right to defend it from others who want to share our privileges. And I worry about standing here talking to you – worry about abusing the power of being able to choose which situations we think about – to prick your consciences whilst allowing mine to remain unruffled. And so I’d like to invite you to email me – to tell me things you think I should know, stories you think I should hear, injustices you think I should rail against, communities who are marginalized, or remarkable, people whose exploits have made the world better but who are unsung. I’ll try to put them into my next assembly.

But for now, a book about unfairness – Les Miserables – it’s my current reading challenge, and it’s quite fat. One character is called Fantine – she’s a beautiful young woman from a poor background who we first meet as the girlfriend of a wealthy student, with whom she has a wonderful life. Then his studies move on and so does he, leaving her behind. Is that unfair? Maybe – he has more money than she does. We then find out that she’s pregnant. Is that unfair? Biology does not treat men and women equally when it comes to reproduction – the Year 12s heard some of Dolly Parton’s views on this on Monday. Fantine has to leave her community to find work; she leaves her daughter with an innkeeping couple, the Thenardiers, who demand all her money to look after her. Is that fair? Is it less fair when they spend the money on themselves and keep the child cold and hungry? Fantine sends her earnings but they demand more, making up expensive illnesses they claim her daughter has. Well, that’s clearly not fair – the Thenardiers are jerks. Fantine sells her hair to a wigmaker and her teeth to a dentist in order to provide for her child, but she’s sick, dying of TB. This is not what you might call a happy book, and I don’t quite know what the moral is here, except to be glad of antibiotics and vaccinations and the welfare state, to learn that we live in a world that contains jerks, and to remember that life isn’t fair and we don’t even get fairness just by saying that nobody should be a jerk because even before you get into economics you have to face Biology.

And I want to pause briefly here to mention Iran where some people are obliged by law to wear headscarves on the basis of their biology and others aren’t and where the protests against this unfairness are meeting responses of violence, and torture, and execution. I don’t have time to do the issue justice, and I don’t know what to say about the province of Afghanistan where women are neither allowed to visit male doctors nor to get educated to become doctors themselves. The protests are definitely about more than just headscarves – and there are inevitably arguments to both sides, but it’s not fair – I hope we spend longer on feminism and/or freedom in another assembly – but I didn’t want to go past it because it’s an example of how biological differences are at the root of social ones, of how being physically weaker creates a vulnerability that can be exploited – which brings us back to Dolly Parton’s back catalogue. It’s not fair, but it is human – we never want to give up our own privileges, even when it’s obvious that those come from putting others down. We explain, excuse, justify.

So let me highlight one group for whom life isn’t fair – a group every single one of us is privileged against – a group that my standard definitions of fairness can’t even help. Because my idea of fairness is something like everyone having the same access to opportunity, to jobs being given to the people who will do most good, to the elimination of prejudice – and the group I want you to think about are people with learning disability. About 1 in 1000 people are born with conditions that mean that they are unlikely to get GCSEs, that mean they are unlikely to be able to live alone, without assistance, that they are not going to go to university, not going to compete for the top jobs that I hope you are all heading for. Let’s not kid ourselves that we deserve to be clever, that we have our opportunities because of our merit – life’s unfair and the genetic dice came up well for us. So what does wanting fairness mean? I don’t have an answer to that question – I don’t actually think it’s the right question and so I’d like to introduce you to a device created by Douglas Hofstadter in his amazing book Godel Esher Bach. I can’t even begin to describe the book – you’ll have to borrow it from the library and read it – but one of the characters decides that by saying “mu” you can unask a question – not answer it, but take it off the table completely. So, I mu my own question here and replace it with another – rather than “What does wanting fairness mean?” I ask “What does wanting kindness mean?” And this is one we can answer. We can want everyone to be able to have dignity; for everyone to have their humanity recognized; for people to be valued on the basis of their humanity rather than their achievements or wealth; and, given that we live in a world that has jerks in it we need a community that protects the vulnerable from those jerks. We should also want to be the kind of people that don’t use learning disability as an insult. Which means that I need to stop calling people idiots when they annoy me (idiot, like moron, retard, and imbecile has been used to describe learning disability both technically, legally, medically, and in common parlance – to use it as an insult is to make my privilege into a virtue). I urge you to try to do the same and should warn you that I am finding this one difficult, it’s a habit I’ve grown into and am finding unsettlingly hard to break.

Resilience for a Better Tomorrow will continue, with more stories, more unsettling questions – and I urge you to interact with it, to let it challenge you. I urge you to think about the issues that mean something to you and tell us about them and to listen to the issues that mean something to others – learn something about the world this spring. We won’t cover everything – there’s just too much injustice and not enough time – that doesn’t mean that the stories we tell are the most important ones – perhaps they are just the least told ones, the most marginalized – and perhaps, circling right back to the beginning, they’re just the ones that those with the privilege, those for whom it’s fine, think of. Which is, of course, unfair. You can help us do better on that front, please do.