Tuesday, December 31, 2013

No Room for Error, No Room for Growth: The Zero-Tolerance Epidemic

Zero tolerance. The phrase is supposed to make us secure, knowing that certain things are simply not going to happen.

The marketing on it is solid and visceral. It appeals to our gut emotions, to our fears about the world. Bullying; not in our school! Discrimination; not in our workplace! Electronics; no distractions here!

What happens, though, is the same thing that happens any time we create a system of judgment and punishment that is black and white. When we encounter shades of gray, the system becomes a thing of fear, itself.
Not exactly the image of a predator.

The problem comes down to two major factors: age and social status.

We often punish children, very young children, for what we adults, experienced and jaded, see as being threatening and/or sexual. Children are being labeled as sex offenders when they often don't even know what sex is.

Others are actually doing such actions as a result from their own abuse. Instead of helping them, we expel or suspend them from perhaps the one place where they get away from their own abuser.

Ironically, the exact same thing happens in the bullying arena. Behaviors that were previously ignored are
now treated as a new and sudden epidemic. At the same time, we ignore that these behaviors are often either learned behaviors (children being abuse at home) or the result of learning and behavioral disorders that undermine the child's social skills.
Boys will be boys...
...is now expelled.

I'm not saying we should ignore the behavior or not try to right it. I'm saying we are reacting a an extreme way to something that has many causes, perceptions and ways of treating it.

This idea can be applied to prisons, too. We have taken the route that all law-breakers are unsalvageable monsters, despite the evidence that rates of recidivism (re-imprisonment) go down significantly when prisoners are treated with a certain amount of respect, given opportunities, and have a social safety net when they leave.

Throw in the concepts that low income, underprivileged individuals (perhaps those without options, choices, or good role models) are more likely to end up in prison, or that up to half of all prisoners are convicted of situational or victimless crimes, and you have a system that punishes... what, exactly?

There are many possible answers. Minorities is common. Those on the social fringes. Persons with mental handicaps. Persons with social handicaps, such as low social status, poor school systems, a lack of social support. Persons who have suffered forms of abuse that may lead to poor choices, bad learned behaviors, or mental disorders. The list goes on.

We should be trying to help people, not slapping their hands, locking them in the closet and expecting their behavior to magically right itself when it's over.

And, yes, I'm sure we will find some people who are incapable of changing, people who can't be trusted ever again. But we punish everyone like they are those people.

We need to find our compassion, do the dirty work, show mercy as we would have it shown to us, and get these people back on track.

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