Equality for Unequals?

Can we truly objectively dispense equality to all people? We always argue that we are unique individuals, that we have unique ways of looking into the world, into our life and experiences. We have long time accepted that no two individuals are exactly alike . . . that we differ in personality and temperament. Why then do we expect equality?

Kenneth Blanchard, in his book One Minute Manager says,

“There’s nothing so unfair than the equal treatment of unequals.”

I couldn’t agree more.

If I performed exemplary well in my job, I didn’t want my boss to reward me by publicly announcing my name to be heard by the entire organization as he enumerates the exemplary actions I made and then handing me a trophy or medal to be seen by everyone. No, for an introvert person like me, that’s very awkward. I don’t like it. Instead, I would ask my boss—if he really wants to reward me—to give me a few days of vacation so I can have time for myself and my loved ones. That is the reward I would be more than happy to receive.

On the other hand, my colleague didn’t want a few days of vacation. Instead she would be excited even just by the thought that she would walk on stage while all employees are clapping their hands as they stare at her.

Why is that so? Because we are completely different. What motivates her, does not motivate me, or even worse . . . demotivates me. Sometimes, vice versa. How then will our boss treat us “equally”?

In training, even in management, there are people who need first to be hurt before they obey you, while there are who don’t need persuasion at all: they are already aligned with your thoughts.

Unfair fairness

Sometimes, we insist to have “equality” if it favors us. If not, we seldom care. We demand equality mostly when we are envious of other people who have received favor that we have been expecting for ourselves. Don’t we realize we become “unfair” when we demand equal treatment to everyone?

People are not equal. Everyone is unique. Although we have some basic similarities, we differ in our paradigms, beliefs, values, attitudes, behaviors, and many other things. The things that excite me, may be absurd to others. What triggers my rage, may just be a laughing matter to some. What I love, some people hate.

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One of my staff in my office needs detailed step-by-step instructions, while my other staff needs general direction. If I happen to interchange my approach to them, we all end up confused and exhausted: the one who expects general instruction will be limited to use her creativity; the one who requires step-by-step direction often got lost; and I, eventually scratch my head and repeat the process from the beginning—bewildered on what happened and why.

Within few months, I learned to adapt to their natural inclinations and capitalize on their strengths. The only way I can be fair with both of them—I reflected deeply—is to treat them differently.

In the training field, I encounter similar situation. Cadets have different triggers. When I shout at them, others will be made active, while others will get confused and unable to move.

In the classroom, the same things happen. Some prefer reading assignments; some verbal discussion; and others prefer practical application. That is why teaching syllabi include different methods of delivery. If my approach to my students revolve only on giving them reading assignments “equally”, I would be unfair to those who don’t prefer reading. If I devote more time to lengthy verbal discussions, those who prefer reading type of learning will be bored.

Fairness and equality are not the same. we can be fair yet not equal. Ironically, we can also treat people with equality while at the same time being unfair to them.

People differ in many ways. We can always provide them “equal” treatment, but remember this:

They will not receive it equally—and the impact of our “equal” treatment to them will not always be equal: some will take it as blessing; some as a curse.

Sweet Unfairness

Life is unfair. However, that unfairness could mean two things: it could be painful or it could be favorable to us.

When my friend caught two of her lady students violating a minor policy in our school, she confronted them right away. As a lady officer dealing with lady subordinates, she talked with them in private and made them realize that they both broke a particular regimental rule, and it’s just expected that they’d be punished. However, she treated them differently: she gave appropriate punishment to the one and forgave the other.

Consequently, the one punished got infuriated with my friend (the lady officer) and got envious with her classmate (the one who was forgiven).

She is unfair! Cried the one who were punished as she came to me complaining about the “unfairness” of my friend.

Avoiding to make any comment yet, I asked her series of questions—questions that would later clarify my understanding of what truly happened and why my friend treated them unequally.

Yet the situation triggered my curiosity. Was my friend really “unfair” to the one she punished? What does “fair” mean in the context of their situation?

Before looking at the dictionary for answers, I first asked a few people for a description of fairness—description, not definition.

Many have described “being fair” as having no undue favoritism; having equal treatment to everyone; not impartial or biased; getting exactly what one deserves.

Then in the dictionary, I found this to be one of the definitions: a disposition to conform with the standard of what is right.

In my laptop dictionary, fair is defined as:

  • in accordance with the rules or standards
  • just or appropriate in the circumstances

The more I asked people, the more I was convinced that my friend was unfair in her dealing with the situation. But as I ponder deeply, I am also more and more convinced that she was unfair not to the one she punished, but instead to the one she forgave.

To the one she punished, my friend just gave what was deserved, what was reasonably expected. The student deliberately violated a rule, and it was very clear to her that her violation has corresponding punishment. She knew she deserved to be punished—nothing more nothing less—and she knew it well even before she committed the violation.

She got exactly what she deserved and what she expected. Technically, that was fair. My friend treated her “in accordance with the rule” giving her exactly what she deserved and expected.

On the other hand, her classmate got the exact opposite of what she deserved. She too, anticipated punishment, but was unexpectedly forgiven. Actually, it was to her that my friend was being unfair to.

She didn’t receive the punishment she deserved. That was truly unfair. That did not conform with the standard of what is right; that was not in accordance with the rules; that was not just or appropriate to the circumstance.

Yet, that unfairness she received was a sweet unfairness, something favorable to her . . . something she would rather sweetly embrace with a grateful heart.

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My friend’s experience has a remarkable parallel in one of the parables in the gospel. In Matthew 20: 1-16, Jesus narrates the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.

When the landowner, distributed the payment to the hired workers at the end of the day, all of them received the same amount of money—the amount the landowner promised them, the one they agreed. However, those who worked for longer hours got infuriated by the fact that they got the same amount of money with those who worked the shortest time. Why?

Perhaps the answer lies in the following reasons:

  • they are experts in comparison. By focusing too much in comparing themselves with the status or accomplishments of others, they forget to notice the grace of the landowner.
  • they are too proud of their own accomplishment—always assuming that they deserve better than others. Therefore they demand extra reward. When that reward didn’t match their ‘too assuming’ expectations, they got infuriated.

Jesus’ parable was not meant to lecture about management principles or guidelines for training students; it was about the grace of God. It implies that all of us stand in common ground as far as reaching God’s approval is concerned. No one is near enough in meeting Jesus’ standard. No matter how much we believe that we are “better” than others, we still fall short of the ideals. Being in that status, we are not in any position to question why God favors one over another.

Having this in mind, I dare not ask God to be fair with me. I am afraid that if God would be “fair enough” in dealing with me, He would right away cast me in hell, for I sin against him and the punishment for that sin is eternal punishment. So I ask God daily for grace in dealing with me, instead of asking for fairness.

Eye for an Eye, Tooth for a Tooth

If God would simply use “eye or an eye, tooth for a tooth” standard of fairness in dealing with the world, then all of us will eventually get blind and toothless. Because we all sinned, we all deserve punishment. According tho the Bible, that would mean death. Yet everyday we don’t get what we deserve. Instead, we get the very opposite of what we deserve—we are blessed and forgiven instead…we are graced.

As I said in the very beginning, unfairness could be painful or could be sweet. God is unfair, indeed. He doesn’t give us what we deserve. If He’s fair, we would all be dead by now—because we deserve death according to his standards. But His unfairness is so sweet, we need to be thankful. Thanks to God for dealing with us in that kind of unfairness—sweet unfairness—something that is so much favorable to all of us . . . yes, favorable even to a fair-minded person like me!

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You may say, “It’s too good to be true.” But I will reply, “It’s too good, it must be true.”