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May 5, 2014

Zero tolerance writ large

By

America no longer openly tolerates racism. We should be proud of the swift condemnation of Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling for his racist remarks.

It took years of struggle, but racism has been greatly diminished. (Yes, it still exists, but not as much as before.) And the struggle was won only because people drew a line in the sand.

The cause was noble. So too was the courage required to draw that line. The evils of racism and bigotry were so great that practically any measure was justified in eradicating them.

But there’s a catch. Intolerance is a weapon. It can be wielded for good or ill. It’s the cause that justifies the means. The fact that intolerance is actually at the heart of the very thing we are trying to combat in racism means it has a double-sided nature. For civil rights leaders, intolerance of racism and bigotry was necessary to defeat the intolerance of racism and bigotry. But when deployed against someone or some cause inappropriately, intolerance is mendacious, not noble.

For years, this dilemma has been at the heart of debates over affirmative action. Must we use racial preferences to combat racial preferences? The dilemma exists as well in our debates over zero tolerance policies in our schools. How far do we go to prevent a child from bringing guns or drugs to school? Do we suspend them for pointing their figures like a gun or for chewing pop-tarts into the shape of the gun? Some obviously agree we should.

The dilemma is getting bigger as the ideology of zero tolerance spreads to evermore aspects of American culture. Whether it’s debates over gay marriage or deciding whether a prominent leader like former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should speak at a commencement ceremony, it is now commonplace for people to argue that we should have zero tolerance of certain political views. Some go so far to say that such people have no right to free speech. It’s as if one’s views on the Iraq War or gay marriage are the moral equivalent of supporting interracial marriage bans.

This is a very slippery slope. For example, if opposition to redefining marriage is truly as morally reprehensible as being a racist — an argument made by activists — why not treat everyone who holds that view like a Donald Sterling?

Are we truly at the point where someone who holds views on gay marriage which were espoused only a few short years ago by President Obama should be publicly shamed and scorned? Are we at the point where belief in a teaching that exists in most of the world’s religions now constitutes a firing offense?

If the ideology of zero tolerance continues to grow, we risk creating a culture of fear and intimidation. That’s, in fact, what supporters of such zero tolerance intend. Theorists who support zero tolerance policies actually believe that the very irrational nature of enforcing ridiculous rules serves as a deterrent.

It does indeed — to rational thought and open discourse. The college bureaucrats who endorse speech codes on campuses are intentionally trying to police thought and curb freedom of speech. They may think they are “doing the Lord’s work” (whatever it may be), but in fact they are making a Faustian pact with the devil of intolerance — the very thing they claim they are fighting.

We are at crossroads. Ostracizing people for their views, especially if legal force is used, should be a very selective thing. In some very bad cases like racism it is necessary, but even there we must be mindful of the First Amendment. We have to make distinctions.

Zero tolerance is a powerful, two-edged weapon. It should not be used as a political trump card for each and every disputed issue. Tolerance and restraint remain essential to a civil society.

 - Kim R. Holmes is a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

Originally appeared in The Washington Times

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