"Zero Tolerance" Really Means Zero Discretion
Recent stories have documented the ridiculous effects of zero-tolerance weapons policies in a Delaware school district: a first-grader expelled for taking a camping utensil to school, a 13-year-old expelled after another student dropped a pocketknife in his lap, and a seventh-grader expelled for cutting paper with a utility knife for a class project. Where'sthecommonsense?theeditorialscry.
These so-called zero-tolerance policies are actually zero-discretion policies. They're policies that must be followed, no situational discretion allowed. We encounter them whenever we go through airport security: no liquids, gels or aerosols. Some workplaces have them for sexual harassment incidents; in some sports a banned substance found in a urine sample means suspension, even if it's for a real medical condition. Judges have zero discretion when faced with mandatory sentencing laws: three strikes for drug offences and you go to jail, mandatory sentencing for statutory rape (underage sex), etc. A national restaurant chain won't serve hamburgers rare, even if you offer to sign a waiver. Whenever you hear "that's the rule, and I can't do anything about it" -- and they're not lying to get rid of you -- you're butting against a zero discretion policy.
These policies enrage us because they are blind to circumstance. Editorial after editorial denounced the suspensions of elementary school children for offenses that anyone with any common sense would agree were accidental and harmless. The Internet is filled with essays demonstrating how the TSA's rules are nonsensical and sometimes don't even improve security. I've written some of them. What we want is for those involved in the situations to have discretion.
However, problems with discretion were the reason behind these mandatory policies in the first place. Discretion is often applied inconsistently. One school principal might deal with knives in the classroom one way, and another principal another way. Your drug sentence could depend considerably on how sympathetic your judge is, or on whether she's having a bad day.
Even worse, discretion can lead to discrimination. Schools had weapons bans before zero-tolerance policies, but teachers and administrators enforced the rules disproportionally against African-American students. Criminal sentences varied by race, too. The benefit of zero-discretion rules and laws is that they ensure that everyone is treated equally.
Zero-discretion rules also protect against lawsuits. If the rules are applied consistently, no parent, air traveler or defendant can claim he was unfairly discriminated against.
So that's the choice. Either we want the rules enforced fairly across the board, which means limiting the discretion of the enforcers at the scene at the time, or we want a more nuanced response to whatever the situation is, which means we give those involved in the situation more discretion.
Of course, there's more to it than that. The problem with the zero-tolerance weapons rules isn't that they're rigid, it's that they're poorly written.
What constitutes a weapon? Is it any knife, no matter how small? Should the penalties be the same for a first grader and a high school student? Does intent matter? When an aspirin carried for menstrual cramps becomes "drug possession," you know there's a badly written rule in effect.
It's the same with airport security and criminal sentencing. Broad and simple rules may be simpler to follow -- and require less thinking on the part of those enforcing them -- but they're almost always far less nuanced than our complex society requires. Unfortunately, the more complex the rules are, the more they're open to interpretation and the more discretion the interpreters have.
The solution is to combine the two, rules and discretion, with procedures to make sure they're not abused. Provide rules, but don't make them so rigid that there's no room for interpretation. Give the people in the situation -- the teachers, the airport security agents, the policemen, the judges -- discretion to apply the rules to the situation. But -- and this is the important part -- allow people to appeal the results if they feel they were treated unfairly. And regularly audit the results to ensure there is no discrimination or favoritism. It's the combination of the four that work: rules plus discretion plus appeal plus audit.
All systems need some form of redress, whether it be open and public like a courtroom or closed and secret like the TSA. Giving discretion to those at the scene just makes for a more efficient appeals process, since the first level of appeal can be handled on the spot.
Zachary, the Delaware first grader suspended for bringing a combination fork, spoon and knife camping utensil to eat his lunch with, had his punishment unanimously overturned by the school board. This was the right decision; but what about all the other students whose parents weren't as forceful or media-savvy enough to turn their child's plight into a national story? Common sense in applying rules is important, but so is equal access to that common sense.
Categories: Laws and Regulations, Physical Security
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What is Tolerance?
| Hobbes: "How are you doing on your New Year's resolutions?" |
Calvin: "I didn't make any. See, in order to improve oneself, one must have some idea of what's 'good.' That implies certain values. But as we all know, values are relative. Every system of belief is equally valid and we need to tolerate diversity. Virtue isn't 'better' than vice. It's just different."
Hobbes: "I don't know if I can tolerate that much tolerance."
Calvin: "I refuse to be victimized by notions of virtuous behavior."
-- A Bill Watterson cartoon shows Calvin and Hobbes walking through the snow.
Tolerance is the appreciation of diversity and the ability to live and let others live. It is the ability to exercise a fair and objective attitude towards those whose opinions, practices, religion, nationality and so on differ from one's own. As William Ury notes, "tolerance is not just agreeing with one another or remaining indifferent in the face of injustice, but rather showing respect for the essential humanity in every person."
Intolerance is the failure to appreciate and respect the practices, opinions and beliefs of another group. For instance, there is a high degree of intolerance between Israeli Jews and Palestinians who are at odds over issues of identity, security, self-determination, statehood, the right of return for refugees, the status of Jerusalem and many other issues. The result is continuing inter-group violence.
Why Does Tolerance Matter?
At a post-9/11 conference on multiculturalism in the United States, participants asked, "How can we be tolerant of those who are intolerant of us?" For many, tolerating intolerance is neither acceptable nor possible.
Though tolerance may seem an impossible exercise in certain situations -- as illustrated by Hobbes in the inset box on the right -- being tolerant nonetheless remains key to easing hostile tensions between groups and to helping communities move past intractable conflict. That is because tolerance is integral to different groups relating to one another in a respectful and understanding way. In cases where communities have been deeply entrenched in violent conflict, being tolerant helps the affected groups endure the pain of the past and resolve their differences. In Rwanda, the Hutus and the Tutsis have tolerated a reconciliation process, which has helped them to work through their anger and resentment towards one another.
Angela Khaminwa emphasizes the flexibility of meanings of the concept "coexistence."
The Origins of Intolerance
In situations where conditions are economically depressed and politically charged, groups and individuals may find it hard to tolerate those that are different from them or have caused them harm. In such cases, discrimination, dehumanization, repression, and violence may occur. This can be seen in the context of Kosovo, where Kosovar Alabanians, grappling with poverty and unemployment, needed a scapegoat, and supported an aggressive Serbian attack against neighboring Bosnian Muslim and Croatian neighbors.
The Consequences of Intolerance
Intolerance will drive groups apart, creating a sense of permanent separation between them. For example, though the laws of apartheid in South Africa were abolished nine years ago, there still exists a noticeable level of personal separation between black and white South Africans, as evidenced in studies on the levels of perceived social distance between the two groups. This continued racial division perpetuates the problems of inter-group resentment and hostility.
How is Intolerance Perpetuated?
Between Individuals: In the absence of their own experiences, individuals base their impressions and opinions of one another on assumptions. These assumptions can be influenced by the positive or negative beliefs of those who are either closest or most influential in their lives, including parents or other family members, colleagues, educators, and/or role models.
In the Media: Individual attitudes are influenced by the images of other groups in the media and the press. For instance, many Serbian communities believed that the western media portrayed a negative image of the Serbian people during the NATO bombing in Kosovo and Serbia. This de-humanization may have contributed to the West's willingness to bomb Serbia. However, there are studies that suggest media images may not influence individuals in all cases. For example, a study conducted on stereotypes discovered people of specific towns in southeastern Australia did not agree with the negative stereotypes of Muslims presented in the media.
In Education: There exists school curriculum and educational literature that provide biased and/or negative historical accounts of world cultures. Education or schooling based on myths can demonize and dehumanize other cultures rather than promote cultural understanding and a tolerance for diversity and differences.
What Can Be Done to Deal with Intolerance?
To encourage tolerance, parties to a conflict and third parties must remind themselves and others that tolerating tolerance is preferable to tolerating intolerance. Following are some useful strategies that may be used as tools to promote tolerance.
Inter-Group Contact: There is evidence that casual inter-group contact does not necessarily reduce inter-group tensions, and may in fact exacerbate existing animosities. However, through intimate inter-group contact, groups will base their opinions of one another on personal experiences, which can reduce prejudices. Intimate inter-group contact should be sustained over a week or longer in order for it to be effective.
In Dialogue: To enhance communication between both sides, dialogue mechanisms such as dialogue groups or problem solving workshops provide opportunities for both sides to express their needs and interests. In such cases, actors engaged in the workshops or similar forums feel their concerns have been heard and recognized. Restorative justice programs such as victim-offender mediation provide this kind of opportunity. For instance, through victim-offender mediation, victims can ask for an apology from the offender.
What Individuals Can Do
Individuals should continually focus on being tolerant of others in their daily lives. This involves consciously challenging the stereotypes and assumptions that they typically encounter in making decisions about others and/or working with others either in a social or a professional environment.
What the Media Can Do
The media should use positive images to promote understanding and cultural sensitivity. The more groups and individuals are exposed to positive media messages about other cultures, the less they are likely to find faults with one another -- particularly those communities who have little access to the outside world and are susceptible to what the media tells them. See the section on stereotypes in this volume to learn more about how the media perpetuate negative images of different groups.
What the Educational System Can Do
Educators are instrumental in promoting tolerance and peaceful coexistence. For instance, schools that create a tolerant environment help young people respect and understand different cultures. In Israel, an Arab and Israeli community called Neve Shalom or Wahat Al-Salam ("Oasis of Peace") created a school designed to support inter-cultural understanding by providing children between the first and sixth grades the opportunity to learn and grow together in a tolerant environment.
What Other Third Parties Can Do
Conflict transformation NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and other actors in the field of peacebuilding can offer mechanisms such as trainings to help parties to a conflict communicate with one another. For instance, several organizations have launched a series of projects in Macedonia that aim to reduce tensions between the country's Albanian, Romani and Macedonian populations, including activities that promote democracy, ethnic tolerance, and respect for human rights.
International organizations need to find ways to enshrine the principles of tolerance in policy. For instance, the United Nations has already created The Declaration of Moral Principles on Tolerance, adopted and signed in Paris by UNESCO's 185 member states on Nov. 16, 1995, which qualifies tolerance as a moral, political, and legal requirement for individuals, groups, and states.
Governments also should aim to institutionalize policies of tolerance. For example, in South Africa, the Education Ministry has advocated the integration of a public school tolerance curriculum into the classroom; the curriculum promotes a holistic approach to learning. The United States government has recognized one week a year as international education week, encouraging schools, organizations, institutions, and individuals to engage in projects and exchanges to heighten global awareness of cultural differences.
The Diaspora community can also play an important role in promoting and sustaining tolerance. They can provide resources to ease tensions and affect institutional policies in a positive way. For example, Jewish, Irish, and Islamic communities have contributed to the peacebuilding effort within their places of origin from their places of residence in the United States. 
 The American Heritage Dictionary (New York: Dell Publishing, 1994).
 William Ury, Getting To Peace (New York: The Penguin Group, 1999), 127.
 As identified by Serge Schmemann, a New York Times columnist noted in his piece of Dec. 29, 2002, in The New York Times entitled "The Burden of Tolerance in a World of Division" that tolerance is a burden rather than a blessing in today's society.
 Jannie Malan, "From Exclusive Aversion to Inclusive Coexistence," Short Paper, African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD), Conference on Coexistence Community Consultations, Durban, South Africa, January 2003, 6.
 As noted by Susan Sachs, a New York Times columnist in her piece of Dec. 16, 2001, in The New York Times entitled "In One Muslim Land, an Effort to Enforce Lessons of Tolerance."
 Amber Hague, "Attitudes of high school students and teachers towards Muslims and Islam in a southeaster Australian community," Intercultural Education 2 (2001): 185-196.
 Yehuda Amir, "Contact Hypothesis in Ethnic Relations," in Weiner, Eugene, eds. The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence (New York: The Continuing Publishing Company, 2000), 162-181.
 The Ukrainian Centre for Common Ground has launched a successful restorative justice project. Information available on-line at www.sfcg.org.
 Neve Shalom homepage [on-line]; available at www.nswas.com; Internet.
 Lessons in Tolerance after Conflict. http://www.beyondintractability.org/library/external-resource?biblio=9997
 "A Global Quest for Tolerance" [article on-line] (UNESCO, 1995, accessed 11 February 2003); available at http://www.unesco.org/new/en/social-and-human-sciences/themes/fight-against-discrimination/promoting-tolerance/; Internet.
 Louis Kriesberg, "Coexistence and the Reconciliation of Communal Conflicts." In Weiner, Eugene, eds. The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence (New York: The Continuing Publishing Company, 2000), 182-198.
Use the following to cite this article:
Peterson, Sarah. "Tolerance." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/tolerance>.