Friday, August 19, 2011

The Fallacy of Fairness

Shirley Jackson's THE LOTTERY.
Brilliant, rather unsettling piece of work.  If you don't know it, go out and find it at your local library.
If you don't feel like dealing with the traffic (or the people), you can download it for free.

I used to joke that the Japanese make all their final breakthrough decisions with rock-paper-scissors.  If sumo is the national sport, rock-paper-scissors is the national decision maker/tie-breaker.  The children start learning it from preschool.  You'll see them playing it after school on the playground, while waiting in line at the grocery store, and as they get older, in student council meetings.  WE, as adults, have used in in the workplace.

At first glance, I always felt it was pretty reasonable to use it to make a choice when no one could decide or no one would step forward.  (And this is Japan so that happens A LOT.  Group harmony and everything.)
It's random, unbiased for the most part.

But "randomness"  does not equate to "fairness" as was painfully brought to light after 3/11.

Before the internal censorship on the news got out of hand in Japan, you could actually hear about the difficulties faced by the people who had lost their homes, their lives, their entire TOWNS, how they really felt and how it affected them.  Then about a month later, it was nothing but talk of "rebuilding" and other hopeful fluff stories.

But in that small interval, you could get some real news.  I recall one piece I saw about the building of the temporary housing.  If you didn't have family in another prefecture to go to, you were stuck in an evac shelter day and night because the world around you had, for all intents and purposes, collapsed and there was simply no place else to go.  And even if there was someplace to go to, no way to get there as most people had their cars washed away or so severely damaged as to be undrivable.  Then again there also was the condition of the roads.  Maps were reduced to meaningless lines on paper in just trying to navigate through the debris.  The whole landscape had been rewritten.

It goes without saying that it takes time to build a house, even a smallish temporary style housing.  And when you have to build houses for 10's of thousands of people....

Enter The Lottery.

Your number came up - you get a house!
Your number didn't - better luck next time.  Sorry, but back to the evac shelter.

Sure it's unbiased, but in making it unbiased have they not just once again reduced people to numbers with no consideration for individual needs.or circumstances?

I am sure the "fairness because it's random" of the lottery was lost on the 80-year old man whose number didn't come up.  As he faced the camera and hopelessly explained, his wife was bedridden before 3/11.  Her health had deteriorated considerably since she had spent all that time at the evac shelter.  He was in no physical condition himself to help her.  What were they supposed to do until the next drawing?

The young family behind him got their number called.

For years now, the overall makeup of the Japanese population has been becoming considerably greyer, becoming a "senior citizen society".  Not only is it an aging population, but that area in particular that was most affected by 3/11, the Tohoku region, has quite a larger than average concentration of retirees as the young usually leave for better chances elsewhere.  I do wonder how many other older citizens faced the same dilemma as that one man did.  .

Yes, the Lottery might be random, might be unbiased, but it would be a mistake to equate that with fairness.


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