NEW YORK—I have zero tolerance for anybody who keeps saying “zero tolerance.”
You see it on signs at bars. You see it on signs at schools. You see it in press releases. I can’t even count the number of CEOs who have used it in the past few months to talk about sexual harassment in the workplace. You even hear it on occasion from a judge, the one person in society who’s expected to temper justice with mercy. (One reason the Catholics keep getting hammered on these child-abuse cases is that the archbishops refuse to say “zero tolerance,” since their whole religion is based on, you know, that pesky concept called forgiveness of sin.)
“Zero tolerance” is how we ended up with 2,654 kids forcibly separated from their parents at the Mexican border, with 528 of them still being held there in the comfy cages of the Rio Grande Valley. Somebody in the government thinks, “Here’s how we’ll stop the alien menace—zero tolerance!” and the wrong people get hurt.
“Zero tolerance” is how a 15-year-old boy gets arrested and barred from school and possibly saddled with a permanent criminal record for mouthing off on Instagram about how much he hates a particular high school.
“Zero tolerance” is how kids get suspended from school for carrying decorative pocket knives that they bought on vacation while touring the Indian reservations.
“Zero tolerance” is how CEOs get fired by the board for not realizing that an employee was beating his wife thirty years ago.
“Zero tolerance” is how stupid jokes and clumsy attempts to get dates become demotions, suspensions without pay, and permanent ostracism.
“Zero tolerance” is how a talented film director gets fired for offhand Twitter comments he made a decade ago—and apologized for a decade ago.
“Zero tolerance” is for lazy people.
“Zero tolerance” is for people who don’t want to evaluate human behavior at all, they just want a set of marching orders that tell them exactly what to do when a certain set of words are spoken, a certain type of complaint is received, or a certain degree of social-media anger is reached.
“Zero tolerance” is for arrogant holier-than-thou moral police officers who want everyone to know how pure of heart they are.
“Zero tolerance” is especially hard on people who are autistic or who have Asperger’s syndrome because they often don’t realize the consequences of their actions or the boundaries within which they’re expected to work. But even in less extreme cases—people who just have overly emotional personalities or talk too much because they’re needy—the “zero tolerance” policy is like a cruel scythe that’s used to weed them out of acceptable society.
“Zero tolerance” gets especially weird when university professors fall in love with their graduate students and vice versa. Lots of universities call this “soliciting sexual favors” by virtue of your teaching position when, examined closely, it just might be romance.
“Zero tolerance” is not good for anything except murder. And actually, if you’re accused of murder, you have a whole array of options allowing you to prove in court that it wasn’t really murder, it was self-defense or justifiable homicide. You have tools to defend yourself that, in 99 percent of the “zero tolerance” cases, aren’t available to the person being disciplined, scolded, or shamed.
It’s not supposed to work this way. There’s supposed to be a person in the head office—an older person, a calm, wise, seasoned person—who comes downstairs in the middle of these “zero tolerance” cases to say, “This is ridiculous. This is not why the policy was created. Let this guy go.”
But the calm, wise, seasoned, older person doesn’t exist anymore. We’ve become Nazis. We’ve become commissars, Huns, Prussian drillmasters. We’ve become martinets with rule books who are frightened of human nature. We’re terrified that we might have to look into an accused person’s eyes and see mere human weakness. We’re terrified that we might see ourselves.