July 7, 2012

Zero Tolerance

Zero ToleranceWhen you hear the phrase "zero tolerance policy," what context comes to mind? For me, it would have to be the public schools. I think of a zero tolerance policy on fighting, drugs, or some other behavior deemed inappropriate by overwhelmed administrators. Let's focus on fighting because I think we can all agree that it should have no place in school. With a zero tolerance policy, the administration is saying that they do not care who started the fight or why the students were fighting; they will respond in the same way regardless of the circumstances. Generally, this means that both of the students involved in the fight are suspended.

If you are the parent of a child who has been getting picked on at school and who finally decides to stand up to a bully, it may strike you as absurd that your child was suspended for doing so. It almost certainly seems unfair that your child receives the same penalty as the bully.

This reveals an important aspect of the zero tolerance policy: it is designed to be implemented without consideration of aggravating or mitigating factors. If your child's school has a zero tolerance policy on fighting, your child gets suspended because he or she was fighting period. In the legal system, we typically find consideration of aggravating (e.g., the student who started the fight has a history of doing so) and mitigating (e.g., one student was engaged in self-defense) circumstances worthwhile. However, we've allowed the schools to cut corners by adopting these one-size-fits-all policies.

Zero Tolerance Policies in the Blogosphere

One of the last places I would expect to encounter zero tolerance policies would be the Internet. We tend to think of the Internet as a bastion of free expression. Even though we generally accept some restrictions on Internet speech, most of us are at least a bit wary of such restrictions.

If you look at my comment policy, you'll see a fairly typical way of wrestling with this at the level of an individual blog. Note how I explain what a troll is and then provide expectations for commenters. At the very end, I note that minor violations may lead to selective moderation, more serious violations may lead to the deletion of individual comments, and repeat offenders may be banned if necessary.

This is very different from a zero tolerance policy in both the language used and the manner of implementation. If I wanted a zero tolerance policy, I might say something like, "Threats will not be tolerated and will result in an immediate ban from additional commenting." To implement such a policy, I'd carry this out to the letter without considering a commenter's history or the context of the comment. But I'm not at all crazy about such an approach. It strikes me as unnecessarily draconian and even a tad counterproductive.

Zero Tolerance Policies in the Atheist Community

Some atheist organizations and blog conglomerates may be tempted to develop and implement zero tolerance policies. While I cannot deny that anti-harassment policies are needed, I'd advise against adopting rigid zero tolerance policies. The potential for overreaction is too high, and there is a very real possibility that such policies can be implemented in service to personal disagreements or biases.

Should groups insist on the need to adopt zero tolerance policies, informed consent becomes vital. Everyone needs to be informed of these policies in advance of making whatever agreements they are making (e.g., joining a blog conglomerate). After all, one has to know the rules before one can be reasonably expected to play by them.

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