There's a thing people have started saying which interests and puzzles me. It's 'to be fair'. Now, I know what 'to be fair' usually means, but what's happening now is that people are using it exactly in place of 'to be honest'.
It's a very subtle shift of meaning but it's definitely happening: I've noticed it for a couple of years now. I first heard it in footballers' post-match interviews. 'Our defending just isn't good enough, to be fair', 'if we want to escape relegation, we're going to have to give it 110%, to be fair'. But it's spread elsewhere. Last week, I heard a chef in a TV cookery competition admit 'If I don't up my game I'm going home, to be fair'.
Each of these comments would have made perfect sense with 'to be honest' in the place of 'to be fair'. They make slightly less clear sense with 'to be fair'.
What's happening here?
First let's recap on what these two different adverbial clauses mean. 'To be honest' announces, as it says, a confession, a new level of honesty. It says, 'I'll come clean'; it suggests sincerity and honesty ('to be honest, I just haven't got round to it', 'to be honest, I just don't know'). It doesn't just have to mean laying oneself bare in a vulnerable way; it can also be used to announce the removal of euphemism and tact ('to be honest, I'm really wondering why I don't just sack you', 'to be honest, you're getting on my tits'). It adds force or authority to an utterance by drawing attention to one's personal attitudes, beliefs and opinions.
'To be fair', previous to this new shift, meant a re-establishment of balance. Either I have been unfair to you (or another), as in 'to be fair, though, he does work very hard' or 'no, you did say that, to be fair'; or you (or another) have been unfair to me, 'to be fair, you'd have to admit I've been saying this since July', 'to be fair, that was not in our agreement'. 'To be fair' in this context adds force or authority by drawing attention to impersonal facts about the world.
What is interesting then, is that people using 'to be fair' in this new context are replacing a directly personal declaration with one that has the appearance of being impersonal. 'Our defending isn't good enough, to be fair' has the patina of reasonableness, objectivity as if we're talking about someone else; 'our defending isn't good enough, to be honest' sounds, in comparison, like a vulnerable admission; it is almost a confession that brings about a crisis. It charges the present encounter with meaning and momentum; I am saying something to you. Something has to change, both in the fault being admitted and the nature of the present encounter. But 'our defending isn't good enough, to be fair' allows acknowledgement of error but holds it at a distance, cools it down.
In that sense, I wonder if it is similar to the epidemic of 'myself' that I've noted before. Its an impersonalisation of a personal utterance, as if our language is reflecting an aversion to personal encounters. It's a way of avoiding the emotional intensity of the situation.
Interviewer. How happy are you with your own performance?
Footballer. I guess that's for yourself to judge.
Interview. You must have an opinion.
Footballer. Our defending isn't good enough, to be fair.
This is not an implausible exchange (listen to BBC 5Live on any Saturday, you'll hear versions of this). I think in this context, it may be about a footballer not wanting to come out and say 'I played badly', because of (a) ego and (b) not wanting to let down team morale. But it has spread into the wider culture and I wonder if we do culturally have a problem now with face-to-face contact. I'm sure I'm not the only person who prefers to email or text than to speak on the phone. That's partly about control and convenience; rather than commit to a negotiation, you can just send off your question and now it's up to someone else to deal with. But this creates an attenuation of everything else that's involved in communication; maintenance of friendship beyond mere utility, checking in on a sense of community, the exchange of informalities, small acts of emotional labour, the grain of the voice.
And what if the values and practices of email and text were to creep further into face-to-face contact, such that the latter becomes reduced to utilitarian exchanges, hemmed in by health warnings and risk aversion? Odd verbal formations like the new 'to be fair' are perhaps the linguistic equivalent of those warnings at the bottom of corporate emails. This from the BBC:
This e-mail (and any attachments) is confidential and may contain personal views which are not the views of the BBC unless specifically stated.
If you have received it in error, please delete it from your system.
Do not use, copy or disclose the information in any way nor act in reliance on it and notify the sender immediately.
Please note that the BBC monitors e-mails sent or received.
Further communication will signify your consent to this.
There's something about 'to be fair' that suspends the situation, holds it in tongs, sanitises and quarantines what we're talking about.
This new 'to be fair' seems to me part of the way we are turning away from personal contact, allowing a form of privatisation of the public sphere. How can we reacquaint ourselves with each other, commit ourselves once again to just being with one another, unlimited by what we need to get out of any exchange?
And in case you think I'm pointing the finger anywhere else, I'm really not. This is a note to self, to be fair.