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The Case Against ‘Zero Tolerance’ Policy as Social/Political Remedy

Listening tonight, to Temple Grandin’s audio book on using the mysteries of autism to translate animal behavior, I was struck by her explanation of why zero tolerance in the meat packing industry doesn’t work.

It’s the same reason, really, that it doesn’t work anywhere we apply it – from schools to courts to employers and employees to government:  it is not designed to work.

Quite simply, zero tolerance is designed to fail. Oh, perhaps not intentionally, but fail it will, and every time.  Why?  Because it is the direct application of what Grandin would call abstracted thought to real life situations.  It is, indeed, the result of a non – perceiving, mentally over stimulated human mind upon a real or potentially real life situation.

Over time, people cannot respond well to the implementation of such a radical abstraction as ‘zero tolerance’ with anything close to consistent conformity.  Because life is not abstract, it is not black and white, it is not finite or fixed or able to be confined or contained by any abstraction for any serious length of time.

The daydreamer of a utopian society might insist that such thinking is for the good of the whole, for the good of all participants, but even this is not true.

Because zero tolerance is the attempt to apply an absolute to a world that is not absolute, but instead is perceptual, interactive, and inter-related.

When we do attempt to apply such gross abstractions, they always backfire.

Just as in Ms. Grandin’s example where the zero tolerance rule of animal treatment leads to the lack of true investigation of conditions (so as to avoid the chaos and repercussions of such absolutes in rules and consequence) so it is in all other applications.

In school yards where there is a zero tolerance of fighting, children learn that to be bullied is equally as punishable as to be the bully.  When there is a zero tolerance for a known problem behavior, it simply pushes the behavior more deeply underground. The child who is bullied dares not fight back, at least on school grounds, and so plans a more elaborate and violent revenge… because the one natural response he or she has available to them in the moment of bullying (to fight back or fight off his or her attackers) has been removed as a matter of social political policy. Getting caught fighting means expulsion, loss of everything that is meaningful or important to the child and repercussions they have no way of dealing with. Not fighting back is equally as bad, but seen as less bad within the context of the policy.

Perhaps worst of all, the zero tolerance policy removes the one thing that all education, life experience and human growth is built upon: the possibility for improvement.  When something is declared as a matter with zero tolerance the only option left to those who might display such behavior is punishment, ridicule, loss of status and destruction of potential. There is no ‘out’, no way to make reparations, no admission of the flawed nature of human beings or their capacity to improve through difficult experience to something better, more life giving as a potential path or choice. There is only lack of tolerance, absolutism and dictatorship.

Zero tolerance leads to 2nd graders being expelled for carrying a Swiss army knife their grandfather gave them as a gift rather than a sane and orderly and situation based approach to a problem.  It assumes that these so called ‘problems’ are so terrible, so fearsome, so disempowering that they must be dealt with by complete eradication. Further, it places this same sense of absolutism which declares the behavior as intolerable upon the subject having committed the intolerable offense: in other words, it makes criminals out of ordinary people with no reality based relationship to the actual events involved.

I don’t know exactly how we got started down this road of the ‘zero tolerance’ idea but I know that until we get off of it – and leave it well behind, we are bound, even doomed, to reap its imperfect and unjust rewards: tyranny over rationality.

Perhaps, then, it is this underlying movement towards zero tolerance that is at least in part, at the root of our most basic and fundamental breakdowns in this country today: we have zero tolerance for children fighting on the school yard while our financial institutions and government collude in orders of magnitude not seen in American history, while fraud and unfairness sweep our economic landscape, and we wonder what has gone wrong in our world…

When zero tolerance is removed, it is possible to replace it with attainable goals, realistic expectations, reparations and real remorse, and the ability and capability for the participants in the ‘problems’ to grow and evolve beyond those problems into more full fledged and well rounded individuals.  So long as our answer is zero tolerance we foster lies, deceit, deception and denial – because in the real world there is no such thing as ‘zero tolerance’.

If you are starving and there is no food, you cannot insist to your body that its response to hunger will not be tolerated, any more than you can insist that a school yard of children will have no disagreements which lead to less than favorable behavior.  To insist otherwise is simply fantasy thinking, and dangerous fantasy thinking, at that.

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One Response to "The Case Against ‘Zero Tolerance’ Policy as Social/Political Remedy"

  1. Mr Data says:

    Zero Tolerance means Zero Justice.

    All the laws with Zero Tolerance are more about vengeance then actual working justice to improve our human flaws.

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