Because I have a professional interest in rhetoric and a personal interest in conservatism, I’ve read a fair amount of Richard M. Weaver. I think one of his strengths is coming up with terminology to describe concepts that everyone understands on some level — in particular here, I’m thinking of his idea of “God-terms” (e.g., freedom, justice) and “Devil-Terms” (racist, Nazi), expressions that are actually intended as ways of shutting off debate (see also the corollaries to Godwin’s Law). When I was in grad school, a girlfriend of mine was a member of a group called “Students for Peace and Justice.” I asked her if there were any groups called “Students for War and Iniquity.” We broke up not long after that.)
Anyway, one such God-term is fairness. Like y’all, I’ve noticed that folks on both the Left and Right are fond of the term, while each decries the other side’s usage. I tend to see the Left’s use of the term as a cover for class envy, and folks on the Left tend to see the right’s use as a sort of cover for what they call Social Darwinism (a term whose own meaning has changed over the decades), or what used to be called “Root, hog, or die.” But both sides will cheerfully claim the mantle of fairness for their goals. As the two definitions don’t really seem compatible, it seems like somebody’s misusing the word. An interesting question (to me, anyway) becomes not so much the definition the rhetor is using (as the emotional impact of the God-term supersedes the denotation, in many cases), but the definition held by the rhetor’s audience. The question then becomes one of which side is using the word fair in a counterintuitive (not to say disingenuous) manner for the larger audience.
The quite unequivocal reply that was received (with breathtakingly enormous majorities in some forms) came as no surprise to this column. To most voters, fairness does not mean an equal distribution of resources and wealth, or even a redistribution of these things according to need. It means, as the report’s title – “Just Deserts” – implies, that people get what they deserve. And what is deserved, the respondents made clear, refers to that which is achieved by effort, talent or dedication to duty: in other words, earned on merit.
The Telegraph‘s report goes on to note that the respondents to the poll were, in fact, pretty hardcore:
Those who responded to this poll seemed to take a quite startlingly hard line on the question of how much the presence of children should be taken into account by the welfare state. A majority said, for example, that there should be no additional child benefit paid after the third child, and they were only lukewarm on the subject of tax breaks for families with children (although they certainly prefer tax reliefs to cash benefits).
Bear in mind, this is Britain we’re discussing, a nation whose academics suggested that the greatest 20th-Century prime minister wasn’t Churchill, but Clement Attlee, architect of the British welfare state. Certainly it’s a nation that has been perceived as being to the left of the U.S.. If this is what they see as fair, what does that mean for the word as used here in the States? Likewise, once we attempt to get past the fog of the God-term, what does that mean for the rhetoric of both the Left and Right in our current discourse? Which side is speaking the language its audience uses, and which side appears to do that while meaning something altogether different?