An Article of the Modern Survival Guide
You’re reading the Modern Survival Guide, a long-running blog that covers things you need to know about the modern world. One of those things, and indeed an increasingly relevant one, is that we have an exceedingly complex understanding of “fairness” in the modern world. It is an increasingly refined, increasingly nuanced topic as time goes on because, as with every other human invention, we have been making iterative improvements.
There are some problems with popular conceptions of fairness, though, and one of the big ones is currently rearing its ugly head: it’s very easy for people to think that “fair” means “whatever happened to me should happen to you.”
There’s a great example of this trend going on right now. Yesterday, the US Supreme Court decided that the Biden administration shouldn’t be able to cancel student loans for millions of US citizens. Regardless of the rationality or lack thereof of that decision, it is now the law of the land. And for those of you who will be discussing this situation over the 4th of July family parties, you are going to hear someone say the following words:
“Why should we cancel student loans? I had to pay back mine!”
If we break down this statement, we see a problem. On its face, it looks like an expression of a fair decision. But it’s not. It’s a perversion of the idea of fairness, and it’s important to recognize that this particular perversion exists, because it is everywhere.
The core problem is that someone who makes this statement is saying that whatever happened to them should happen to everyone, because others should suffer what they suffered. That’s not fair. It’s just spiteful.
Apply this to other situations, and you start to see how toxic it is.
“Why should they get an office job, when I had to work in the field?”
“Why should they get a commuted sentence for a crime for which I served full time?”
“I got hazed in my frat, why shouldn’t the new brothers also have to do the elephant walk?”
“I got bullied as a child, my child should get bullied too!”
I don’t know if anyone else has coined a term for this issue, so I’m calling it the Equal Pain Trap: the fallacious argument that because I suffered, you should too, because that’s fair. It’s a very popular trap to fall into, because it plays off the innate sense of fairness that most people have.
This stems from a perfectly natural trait for a social animal, which is to check to see how you’re doing compared to your neighbor. If your neighbor is getting something good, you want it too. After all, you’re just as deserving as they are, right? It’s unfair for them to get something you’re not getting, all else being equal. If the government is handing out tax breaks, for example, and your neighbor gets one when you don’t, it’s reasonable to demand to know why, and try to get your fair share of the benefit.
The Equal Pain Trap flips that logic on its head, and it’s very seductive, because schadenfreude is a thing too. For those who might not know, this is one of my favorite German words, and a rough translation would be “taking joy in someone else’s pain.” The Equal Pain Trap is someone desiring another person’s pain — nothing more, nothing less — because they think it’s “fair” that everyone suffer the same as them.
But folks, that’s not what “fair” means. When we say something is fair, it’s supposed to mean that thing is impartial, just, without deceit, and without favoritism. You get what you deserve. And what folks who fall into the Equal Pain Trap tend to forget is that maybe they didn’t deserve to get what the object of their ire received, or maybe they didn’t deserve to be treated as poorly as they were, or maybe the situation has changed, or possibly even the definitions of “impartial, just, and without deceit or favoritism” may have gone through some updates between one event and the next.
In other words, nuance and context tend to pass these folks by. The Equal Pain Trap isn’t actually interested in fairness, it’s a product of vindictive jealousy on the part of one person who would deny someone else an easier life just because their own life was harder. It doesn’t make sense, it’s not a fair appraisal of the situation, and it’s just mean.
Am I saying that people who took student loans deserve to have them forgiven? I do hold that opinion, in some cases, but that’s not the point and it’s not the argument I’m making here. My point here is simply that you are going to encounter people who perpetuate the Equal Pain Trap in life. It’s important to know that they’re wrong. If all they’ve got is that they want others to suffer what they suffered, they’re wrong every time. Suffering has no intrinsic value; almost always, it has intrinsic cost.
Don’t fall into the Equal Pain Trap yourself, and don’t let others get away with pulling people into it.