When Did We Become So Gutless?

Quiz:  Which is the wiser, more reasonable, and, ultimately, more effective decision-maker?  Manager A, who does his or her best to consider all the relevant facts—including any mitigating circumstances, messy as they may be?  Or Manager B, who adheres to a rigid “zero tolerance” policy?

I think most of us would say it’s the nimble-minded Manager A.  Not only is Manager A’s style best suited to the subtleties and ambiguities of a complicated world, but, in truth, we wouldn’t even need a live human being to do Manager B’s job, because a well-written computer program could do it equally well.  Just type in the relevant data, press “Enter,” and the machine would spit out the proper decision.

Yet, despite the obvious virtues of Manager A, we’ve somehow allowed ourselves to become a nation dominated by bosses who emulate the inflexible decision-making style of Manager B.  Consider the following.

  • A 73-year old man is told to leave the children’s book section of his local bookstore, after a customer apparently complained that he looked like a potential child molester.  So a store employee ordered him to leave.  As it turned out the man (a medical doctor) was in the store by himself, harmlessly shopping for books for his grandchildren.  Sorry, sir, but we have a strict “zero-tolerance” policy against sex deviants lurking in the kids section.  What’s that?  You’re not a pervert?  Well,  we’re going to ask you leave anyway.  Better safe than sorry.
  • When an employee of a grocery store chain saw a male customer viciously beating a woman, he heroically came to the woman’s rescue, grabbing the man and wrestling him to the ground.  The employee was subsequently fired for his actions.  The reason he was fired was because the store had a strict “zero tolerance” policy against fighting.  Fortunately, the employee had a labor union to represent him, and it was the union, principally, who got his job back for him.
  • A woman track coach was removed from her position after accompanying a male student to the school prom.  The boy was 17 years old, the coach was 41.  Apparently, after someone at the dance complained, school officials sprang into action.  The facts:  This woman was the boy’s English teacher, and part of the deal was that he promised to study harder if she agreed to accompany him (he was depressed he couldn’t find a date, which was why she offered to go in the first place).  The woman had asked the boy’s dad for permission in advance, and he had no objections.  And while at the dance, the boy and his teacher mainly played foosball and ping-pong.  Still, “zero tolerance” dictated that she step down as volunteer coach.
  • A 6-year old boy, a first-grader, told a girl classmate at recess that he was “sexy.” A school yard monitor overheard the comment and reported it to a teacher, who reported it to an administrator, who took it upon himself to suspend the boy.  Reason?  The school had a strict “zero tolerance” policy against sexual harassment.
  • A fifth-grade boy brought his grandfather’s World War II knife to school for a show-and-tell.  The knife was sheathed, and the sheath was wrapped in a towel.  But when his teacher saw it, she told the principal, and the principal called the police because, when it came to “weapons on campus,” they had a strict “zero tolerance” policy.  Instead of the teacher confiscating the knife, contacting the parents and having them come to school to retrieve it (and being advised of its inappropriateness), they treated this case like another potential Virginia Tech.  Better safe than sorry, I guess.

A labor lawyer once told me there was a wide array of penalties for auto theft, depending on “how” the car was stolen.   For example, you got a stiffer penalty for breaking into a car and hot wiring it, than for seeing a car parked outside a convenience store with its engine running, jumping inside, and driving off with it.  That’s the wisdom of our legal system.  The law is applied in gradations.  Apparently, it’s only in the world of bureaucrats and petty tyrants that “zero tolerance” is king.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.