The Challenge of Fairness

I struggle with the idea of fairness. Fairness is important to me. It bothers me, deeply, when I see things that are unfair. As a kid, I hated it when people would say, “The world isn’t always fair!” It was always just a transparent excuse for people treat others unfairly. Just because the world isn’t fair doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be.

Most libraries have a Patron Code of Conduct: a document laying out behavioral and usage expectations for people who use the library. Fairness is essential when it comes to these codes of conduct and especially when it comes to disciplinary actions in response to infractions.

Fairness requires us to apply our codes of conduct equally to all patrons. That seems obvious, right?

Maybe not.

For example, many libraries prohibit excessive body odor. If someone smells so bad it prevents other people from using the library, that’s a problem. I recognize this is a legitimate issue.

But I also know complaints about body odor are frequently used as a tactic to target homeless people. Yes, their odor can get pretty bad but it’s mostly a convenient excuse to kick homeless people out of shared spaces.

That’s not fair.

Complaints about body odor are often dog whistles for xenophobia. Certain immigrant populations come from cultures with different bathing habits and different attitudes towards body odor. Complaining about their smell is a way for people to express anti-immigrant sentiment without being explicit about it. It’s not about the odor so much as it’s about the person.

That’s not fair.

In cases like these, I’d hope library staff would recognize what’s really going on and deal with the issue accordingly. But it serves to illustrate that applying this rule equally to all people isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems.

There are certain medical conditions which cause extreme body odor. Increased body odor can be a side effect of some medications. We can’t know if someone is suffering from one of these conditions, or taking one of these medications, when we ask them to leave the library because of their stench. Are we not, then, discriminating against them based on medical status?

That’s not fair. And it might not be legal.

But let’s set all that aside. Assume the issue really is someone’s body odor and they’re not being targeted by intolerance. Consider how applying this rule affects different people:

If I’m asked to leave the library until I can get my body odor under control, I can go home and take a shower or do some laundry (because what we think of as body odor is more a result of unwashed clothing than unwashed bodies). I can take showers and do laundry regularly to prevent the issue from coming up again.

What’s a homeless person supposed to do if they’re asked to leave because they stink? Where can they go to take a shower? How easy is it for them to wash their clothes? How often are they going to get kicked out of the library because they can’t shower or do laundry regularly? How soon until they’re banned from the library permanently for repeated infractions?

For me, this consequence is a minor inconvenience. For a homeless person, it presents a significant challenge. It effectively prevents them from using the library.

That’s not fair.

This rule affects different people differently. Applying the rule equally to all people results in unequal outcomes. Rules about body odor punish homeless people far more than people like me.

That’s not fair.

We want to be fair in how we treat people. We want our Patron Codes of Conduct to be equal for all patrons.

The question is: What do we mean by “fair” and “equal”? Is equality of application really the best standard to which we can hold ourselves? Or should we pay more attention to the equality of how these rules affect different people?

It may be too impractical to seek equality of outcomes. Equality of application is probably the most legally defensible strategy.

But I wish we would wrestle with this issue more than we do. I feel like we don’t pay enough attention to it—as though the results of how we apply our rules aren’t our problem because our job was simply to apply the rules equally.

The same rules affect different people differently. Applying the same rules equally to all people can result in unequal consequences. That matters. It’s the outcome of our actions which create a fair or unfair society.

Fairness matters to me but I don’t always see how to get there from here. I struggle with it.

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