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On the Word “Fair,” and Speaking the Right Language

We often hear people talk all the time about “bringing people together” or working “across the aisle,” but it rarely seems to come to fruition. I’m sure that part of the reason why this talk has failed is because many of the people who say such things don’t actually mean it. But I think a significant reason for the failure of such rhetoric is because of the rhetoric itself. Specifically, I think that most people spend so much time in their own ideological boxes that they fail to understand how to talk to their opponents in ways that will resonate or at the least be listened to and understood.

To illustrate this point, I can use the example of “common sense.” Prior to reading Mike Huckabee’s “A Simple Government” and Frederick M. Hess’s “Common Sense School Reform,” I didn’t know that “common sense” was a sort of code word for “conservative.” I should have, though. Having watched a fair amount of Bill O’Reilly, I often marveled at his ability, usually through his “talking points,” to make any point of view sound a lot like common sense. I mean this as no slight whatsoever, but conservatives have a way of boiling down their policy ideas to simple talking points and sound bites. This does not necessarily indicate a simpler policy, but merely a different way of communicating those policies to the public. It’s actually quite an impressive skill. As Mark Twain once said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Another failure to speak the same language occurred when there was a push (especially on social media) for policies to drug test welfare recipients. Many conservatives were in favor of this, while many liberals opposed it. While many liberal complaints talked about morality, racial biases, drug legalization, false positives, and other similar arguments, I felt there was a great opportunity being missed to speak in the same language about this policy proposal.

When I spoke to conservatives about this issue, I talked about the need it created to expand the welfare bureaucracy, expand government powers and controls, and most importantly the fact that it has been shown to be economically inefficient. If there’s anything conservatives hate, it’s government-expanding, wasteful spending that does not accomplish its idealistic goal, right? If the debate had been waged on these terms, perhaps Florida would not have passed the law and eventually lost money, as expected.

However, by far the biggest communication disconnect between the contrasting American ideologies takes place over the word “fair,” especially when in reference to taxes. Here are some definitions of the word fair:

1. free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice: a fair decision.

2. legitimately sought, pursued, done, given, etc.; proper under the rules

It sounds simple enough, but in practice creating a system that is fair–that is free of bias and injustice–is a very subjective exercise. For instance, if you ask a liberal what a fair system of taxation should be, they might say that the rich should pay more; their “fair share,” as it’s often said. If you ask a conservative what a fair system of taxation should be, you might hear that every dollar should be taxed equally under a flat income tax rate or they could mention the consumption-based, aptly titled “fair tax.” And yet, from both the left and the right, you continue to hear calls for a more fair tax system, echoed by calls that “fairness” isn’t a realistic goal.

I think we should all decide here and now to stop with that charade. Let’s all stop discussing taxes and other policies in terms of fairness. Fairness is a construct–it is shaped by the environment and ideology of the person using the word. And when a word has different meanings to each person, that word ceases to have a useful meaning. If liberals or conservatives ever hope to change the minds of people that oppose or are skeptical of their views, appealing to a sense of fairness will never gain that new support. So ditch the useless buzz words and learn to see things from an opposing point of view. Only then can anyone ever truly work across the aisle or bring people together. Of course, doing so would require listening to an opposing viewpoint closely enough to understand the language that they use and the priorities that they espouse. I guess I’m asking for too much.

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  1. October 3, 2013 at 1:10 am

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