Fairness matters to the organisers of the games in Squid Game – Netflix’s breakout foreign language show from South Korea. But it is a peculiar and unconvincing form of fairness.
Everything is peculiar about Squid Game. Though there is a sense of positive determination around the key character, overall its worldview is darkly dystopian, reflecting the darkly dystopian view of those organisers, that no one is to be trusted and everyone is banally evil, by omission at least, if not commission.
It is episode 5 that is called A Fair World, but it is the start of episode 6, Gganbu, where their peculiar version of fairness is made clear. There is typically brutal treatment meted out to those handful of guards and player who had sought to take advantage of the situation for their own benefit. It is explained and reinforced by a public announcement to all those remaining:
“You are witnessing the fates of those who broke the rules of this world for their own benefit and furthermore tainted the pure ideology of this world. Here you are all equal, with equal opportunity and no discrimination. We promise to prevent such misfortunes from happening again. We truly apologise for this tragedy.”
This nearly sacred treatment of the concepts of fairness and equality struck me as odd, not least because the term had not seemed to feature up to that point – though I am now highly alert to the words fair and fairness, I hadn’t noticed them prior to then.
The peculiar form of fairness that the organisers have in mind is that the players are obliged to take decisions prior to games behind a veil of ignorance about what those games are. They need to decide their teams before knowing what skill or ability will be favoured – or whether they will be competing with other teams or with the other members of their own. They need to decide who goes first in a game without knowing whether the first or last will be favoured.
Of course, the organisers do not really believe in fairness. There isn’t much scope for real fairness in their dystopian world. After all, they are not above unfairly changing the rules of the game partway through to drive particular results (think of the turning off of lights in the middle of one game). Rather than fairness, they want randomness, driven in part by the chance choices made behind that veil of ignorance.
The veil of ignorance is a key concept in thinking about fairness. Philosopher John Rawls, perhaps the main thinker about the concept, used the veil as a way to understand what a fair world might look like. In his ideas (set out originally in A Theory of Justice, but perhaps more accessibly in Justice as Fairness), societies must develop structures and frameworks to deliver fairness – not least protections and support for those most vulnerable and needy – without any of the individuals involved in that development knowing the nature of their own circumstances. In the Rawlsian world, this ignorance about individual starting positions removes the natural prejudice that tends to favour the winners, and ensures instead that there are genuine protections and support for all. The veil should ensure that no one is disadvantaged unfairly by the chosen system.
It’s the opposite of the Squid Game world. There, each game is biased against all players, though a few will have some natural advantages. The weakest are rapidly abandoned – it is a dystopia after all. The only benefit of the ignorance is to maintain randomness, not any meaningful fairness. That’s why I don’t believe the organisers and their statements about the fairness of the world they have created. It is a very peculiar world, and a very peculiar form of fairness.
A Theory of Justice, John Rawls, 1971
Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, John Rawls, 2004