Thursday, March 14, 2024

Accounting for Historic Injustice: Two Kinds of "Fair" At Odds With Each Other

Hi all,

So, a situation comes up frequently in my social justice work and, like most of my conceptual engineering work, didn't have a concept or way to describe it. I started building a model for it a few years ago and am finally at a point where I can write this article. I don't have a fancy, catchy name yet (open to suggestions). I also don't have any sort of answer to this issue, but labeling the problem and challenge is an achievement itself.

Here's the issue.

Say you have a historic injustice. For example, from the world of autism understanding, the vast over-representation of studies, research, and lived experience community knowledge about the male experience with autism. It's a problem. We desire a more just and equitable future. What counts as "fair" moving forward? Here's the model I built to examine that question, and will explain below what this graphic is trying to point out as a very tough question and challenge that many social justice efforts stumble up against.

Apologies for low quality image, click on image for higher-res view

To start with, let's for the sake of simplicity say there is a version of "just" and "fair" representation. I know that's overly simplistic and have whole articles about that but for the sake of this issue, we're simplifying a bit and saying "fair" exists. There's a version of fair that should have been there from the start but wasn't. In a very real sense, that's a baseline of where we want society to get to. This is represented with the dashed-line in the diagram. One group is currently favored - that is unjust - and the model shows the red line of past injustice (ignore for now if the line should be slanted and even worse / improving, we're going for maximum simple here). The idea is - past and ongoing injustice is present. 

Here's the issue.

When moving forward to correct the injustice, one school of though is to simply implement the baseline level of equality and call that sufficient. In the diagram below, that's the option labeled #2. So, four thousands past studies on autistic boys? Moving forward, it's just equal representation of all gender identities. And that's all we'll do. In one sense, this is fair. It's the baseline of fair moving forward. The thing is though, what about this....

There is this massive ongoing legacy of unjust oppression and all the costs and effects and pain and suffering that comes with that. If we simply put in the baseline starting tomorrow, was there sort of healing or accountability or compensation or fixing of the past damage? Not if we just put in the baseline of "fair in a vacuum" baseline, because one understanding of "fair in a vacuum" doesn't account for the past. 

Put in this way. For four hundreds days, you are given $1 and I am given $0. At present that means you now have $400 and I have $0. If, starting tomorrow, we each starting receiving $1 a day, is that "fair"? It's "fair in a vacuum" fair moving forward, but there isn't a vacuum. There's that legacy of past injustice. Another option is that for the next four hundred days, it's time for you to start receiving $0 and for me to start receiving $1, until we arrive at the point where we now both have $400. That too has a level of "fairness" to it, right? That scenario is what line #2 represents. 

Hence, we have two kinds of fairness depending on how one thinks of fair. The fairness of "it's your turn to be unfair until all past injustice is accounted for", which means still existing outside of "baselines fairness" moving forward. some is still living unfairly at present, contextualized by past unfairness. The other option is there's "baseline fairness" moving forward.

The question is - which is most "fair"?

I don't have any idea, but what I do see is this issue popping up constantly in discussions of injustice. This goes all the way to the debate over Biblical "eye for an eye" justice and probably since the dawn of modern humans. Is it fair to take an eye because a past eye was lost? Is it fair to make sure moving forward that no-one, meaning not even past eye takers themselves, losing an eye because it's unfair for anyone to lose an eye?

There ought to be a term for this moral and justice based quandary. I searched around, could not find one, and so I sketched out this model. For now I've been calling it the Two Kinds of Fair. To be very clear, this is such an oversimplification of what can be very nuanced discussions about right and wrong and fair and unfair.

If there's one thing to say, I will say this. I personally feel it's wrong to have no accounting whatsoever for "righting" past wrongs. The idea of "oh well, the past is the past, let's just be more baseline fair moving forward" seems incredibly and deeply wrong to me. Sort of a "sorry that person crashed into your car, society won't repair it but we did prevent future crashes so everything's okay, right?". No, it isn't. Surely the person who has the mangled car deserves ... something. Surely the people who already have cars can help repair the broken car, right? 

As for exactly what "repair" and "accountability for past injustice" looks like, that might be a subjective, challenging conversation. I do hope this model, or some future improved version of it, helps provide some way to think through the issue more clearly. Including highlighting that this question exists at all. 

Another way to put in, in words instead of as weird looking drawing in the Paint app, is this. As a concluding question....

How do we not just ignore but atone for the past? What is "fair" moving forward when there is a legacy of oppression and marginalization, one often stretching back for centuries?

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This article brought to you by the currently unfunded Peer Voices Network. 

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