Zero tolerance idiocracy

Posted Friday, March 8th, 2013 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Law and Culture, Not South Carolina Specific, Of Interest to General Public

It’s dress up Friday at my daughter’s magnet school, in which students can ditch uniforms and come as their favorite novel character.  My daughter’s dressing as Katniss from “The Hunger Games.”  While she was walking out the door with her crossbow and quiver of rubber arrows, I reminded my wife of the school district’s zero tolerance policy on weapons and suggested that she leave the arrows home.  It’s rare that I’m the sensible parent but I ’d just recently read about the seven-year-old second grader in Baltimore who was suspended for two days for munching his Pop Tart into the shape of a gun.

Katniss’ appeal to a tween girl is obvious: pretty but tough; emotionally vulnerable but self-sufficient.  To a girl on the cusp of puberty she presents a model of femininity that isn’t dainty and of adulthood that isn’t boring.  But a Katniss without her arrows is like a cat without its claws.

Some of the pedagogical impact of dressing like Katniss was lost when we made our daughter leave the arrows home.  Yet a zero tolerance policy made us fear suspension–perhaps even expulsion–for an honor student who’s never had a discipline problem (in contrast, thirty-five years ago, I could bring a Swiss army knife to public school and it wasn’t an issue).

Just today one of my fantasy dinner guests, sabermetric guru Bill James, was blogging about the harm of zero tolerance policies as it regards air travel, writing:

It’s hard to explain, but. . . .introducing any absolute into a system of competitive values destroys the system, since an absolute has infinite value, which gradually, by its interaction with other values, consumes the value of everything that it competes with.    That probably sounds obscure, but it’s something that happens all the time, and it plays a role in all of the discussions we have here, including the child safety discussions, etc.   Zero-tolerance policies for drugs and other ills are a cheap but useful example.  The FAA places an absolute value on risk prevention, which erodes and corrupts all other values of the system, such as speed and efficiency.

A zero tolerance policy that cannot distinguish partially-chewed Pop Tarts and rubber arrows from gats and glocks (and cannot distinguish Midol from methamphetamine) is idioical.  But it’s the culture we currently live in.

5 thoughts on Zero tolerance idiocracy

  1. Jim Sarratt says:


    Enjoy your blog. We live in a zero tolerance culture, don’t we.
    zero tolerance for compromise, zero tolerance for other’s beliefs.

    But I think all of us are getting weary of the zero tolerance mentality. When weariness turns into action, maybe things will begin to change.

    1. Tom Doyle says:

      Action doesn’t seem to me to be the next logical step atfer a symptom described as weariness.

  2. MJ Goodwin says:

    I have always felt that zero tolerance = zero common sense.

  3. Tom Doyle says:

    Spot on Greg. Love the Bill James bit.

  4. California observer says:

    Lots of aspects of our legal system are designed primarily for ease of adjudication, and “zero” is easy to adjudicate. That’s likely not to change, since a related value, “efficiency,” is both worshipped and rewarded. The law is a machine, and we are its cogs.

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