We'd rather have fair inequality than unfair equality, research shows

How we define "inequality" is of utmost importance in trying to implement fair equality.

Inequality helped to define the 2016 election. Bernie Sanders built his entire platform on challenging the wealth gap in our society, while one of the most successful slogans of the cycle—“Drain the swamp!”—helped elect a billionaire. How well that drainage is going is another story completely, for another article—there are plenty out there.

But what does equality mean, and is such an ambition even possible? It depends on how we define the term. Extensive research on economic disparity between white and black boys destroys any notion that everyone is on equal footing in this country. Anyone claiming that everyone has an equal shot in America is either ignorant or lying.

But equality is a complex and relative subject, as Yale cognitive scientist Mark Sheshkin points out. Research shows that while slogans for equality dominate social media and protests around the nation, most appreciate a bit of inequality. As Sheshkin puts it, “we should aspire to fair inequality, not unfair equality.”

To make this point, Sheshkin asks you to imagine co-owning a bakery. If you put in four days of work per week and your partner three, you would likely expect to be paid 4/7 of the profits, not 1/2. Beyond equality, humans are more invested in fairness. If you work more it’s only fair that you receive more of the profit, a basic capitalist principle. As Sheshkin writes,

There are many reasons why we might prefer a society with some wealth inequality. One is a hope that we will become one of the wealthier people ourselves. Another is that it promotes industriousness and social mobility.

Earning that wealth is, in principle, an essential motivator for productivity. This is separate from arguing over gender and race inequality and corporations sheltering profits in tax havens. It also speaks to the popular hunter-gatherer model we reference when contemplating our social origins: everyone had to pull their weight or risk being outcast or shunned.

Dita Von Teese walks the red carpet during the 18th Life Ball at Town Hall on July 17, 2010 in Vienna, Austria. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Life Ball/Getty Images)

That doesn’t imply that everyone is equal, however. We need to look no further than our primate relatives. An alpha chimp is so called for important reasons, yet he cannot be too dominant or else he risks being overthrown by a collection of subordinates. That’s why he makes friends with lesser chimps. Strategically he gets all the women and eats first, not by blunt force.

Which is how the romanticized tribes we conjure must have operated. No tribal leader would have acquired 354 times more than his peers, as is the case with American CEOs. But the notion of complete equality is also a misnomer. Recognizing this reality is essential in combating unfair inequality, as Sheshkin writes. Once we define the terms, we have a firmer basis for setting into motion practices that level the playing field.

Working out what constitutes fair distribution will require us to answer many difficult moral and practical questions, but this will become easier the more we understand the psychology of how people judge equality and fairness.

Such a conversation is difficult to have in a virulent tribalistic society such as America has turned into. Social media provides an apt and disturbing picture of how we understand equality today. The goal of many people and brands—the two often indistinguishable—is to acquire as many followers as possible. Followers require a leader. Yet what type of leader's sole concern is posting photos of themselves day after day? What leadership skills are being exhibited?

Incredibly, the more followers a person acquires—one popular label is “public figure”—the more respected their voice becomes, even if what they’re actually putting forward is complete nonsense. This is not equality, but voyeurism, which is informative in determining what our true desires are.

Sadly, this follower mindset actually skews equality. (Not that there aren’t leaders worth following on social media.) As Canadian psychologist and professor Jordan Peterson recently told Big Think, the very idea of a celebrity becomes toxic when we spend too much time comparing ourselves to what they’ve accomplished. That's what happens when individuals with no actual leadership qualities are assigned that role. 

Peterson also believes hierarchy and inequality are part of the human experience. If you have goals in life, you’re always aiming up. No one with ambition believes that tomorrow will be worse than today; that’s depression. Depressed people do not aim, which robs their life of meaning and, as Peterson concludes, “what you’re left with is suffering.”

By default aiming up produces a hierarchy. Peterson uses basketball to analogize: a century after the sport was created we have superstars and most everyone else, who is definitively worse at the game than those stars. We rightfully worship the cream of the crop for their hard-earned abilities—they put in the work to accomplish their goal—yet we err when comparing ourselves to them.

One chapter in Peterson’s book, 12 Rules For Life, sums this idea up: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today. To do this, he suggests an “intelligent multidimensional analysis of your life.” Such an analysis requires a complex and honest conversation about who you are and what your goals in life are.

Analyze yourself, figure out what the problem is, figure out where you would like to be, and then try to make today and tomorrow fractionally better than yesterday. There’s real utility in incremental progress.

It might take a few years to recognize how far you’ve come, which requires patience. Peterson insists this path is better than the alternative: a slow and certain slide into depression and resentment. He phrases it succinctly:

Becoming resentful about your relative position is a way to make it more brutal.

No matter what I believe life is or should be, I was not born a millionaire, nor did I begin life in poverty, black, or a woman. There are many equality fights we need to have. But defining the term is essential. Otherwise, we fall for simple and simplistic slogans—“Drain the swamp!”—without recognizing what is being drained from us.

Inequality is built into our biology. Whether we use it as a catalyst or an excuse is the question each of us has to answer individually. Only then can we have an honest conversation about how to level the playing field in an honest fashion. 


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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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