Pubdate: Sun, 08 Apr 2001
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2001 Los Angeles Times
Author: Lance Jencks
Note: News from Costa Mesa in the Times Community Newspapers


As the history of the 1990s is written, the most famous phrase of the era 
will prove to have been "zero tolerance."

Conceived as a slogan in the war against drugs, zero tolerance has come to 
mean much more in the minds of the young people toward whom it is directed. 
It means as it says: "no tolerance." No mistakes. No forgiveness. No room 
for error.

When a phrase such as zero tolerance gains in a culture, its implications 
extend far beyond the original intent of those who promote it. In all 
language, there is a surface meaning -- the regulations as written -- and a 
"subtext" -- or deeper psychological import. It is this subtext that can 
migrate in malignant form to create internal mind-sets never foreseen by 
the authors of the original text.

For example, shortly after zero tolerance was implemented as school policy, 
a rock band was formed called Zero Tolerance. The concept of "no tolerance" 
migrated from school dictums to the wider culture, with implications much 
broader than originally intended.

Another example: the zero-tolerance policy in Orange County soon gave birth 
to a youth gang called "Straight Edge," which practiced its own form of 
zero tolerance through physical abuse of people whose appearance, beliefs 
or behavior it didn't like.

Seen from the widest perspective, zero tolerance is a concept that stands 
in direct opposition to long-held principles of western civilization such 
as forgiveness, forbearance, the right to a trial before a jury of peers, 
and many others. Most importantly, it stands opposed to the founding Greek 
ideal of "sophron," or moderation, which has informed western civilization 
for two millennia.

When the Taliban -- following scripture that abjures graven images -- 
destroy an ancient Buddhist statue, they are following a policy of zero 
tolerance in accordance with their own views. In short, zero tolerance is 
an idea that leaves no room for compromise, mitigating circumstance or even 
serious thought.

Unfortunately, after years of being taught the concept of zero tolerance, 
some unstable students have internalized the message in an inappropriate 
way. Faced with adolescent problems and lacking the administrative power of 
adults, they have responded with a personal vision of zero tolerance that, 
tragically, makes the evening news.

No parent or concerned adult will disagree with policies prohibiting 
weapons, drugs or even bullying in our schools. But such policies should be 
titled in reference to the subjects they address.

A drug policy, for example, could be called "Policy Regarding Drug and 
Alcohol Possession On School Property," and still retain the sanctions of 
present regulation.

At its base, the phrase "zero tolerance" runs counter to the fundamental 
precepts of Judeo-Christian culture.

Parents, teachers and administrators would go a long way toward reducing 
tension among our youth by abandoning this slogan and returning instead to 
traditional western ideas of decency, kindness, forgiveness and, yes, 

Lance Jencks

Costa Mesa
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