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The true meaning of zero tolerance

If 2017 has taught us anything about American politics, it is that hardly anyone is truly comfortable with the concept of zero tolerance. In the case of sexual misconduct, zero tolerance means encouraging a colleague accused of groping women to resign, but only after calling him an “icon” and casting doubt on his accusers. In the case of racism, zero tolerance means demanding the removal of Confederate statues while ignoring scores of monuments dedicated to our slaveholding founders.

Why do we have so much trouble enforcing the moral lines we draw? Because it is deeply uncomfortable for Americans to rethink American values. Individual self worth, and America’s power and standing in the world, hinge heavily on the perceived validity of our institutions and the way in which our history is told. To acknowledge the ethical failings of the nation is to acknowledge the persistence of our own moral decay. Faced with that task, it is much easier to cite an exemption, move the goal post and nurture the illusion of our virtue.

{mosads}When President Trump asked reporters in August whether monuments honoring George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were coming down next amid protests surrounding the removal of a statue of Robert Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, his critics scolded his embrace of a false equivalence, stretching and contorting themselves to condemn the horrific acts of our forefathers while upholding their status in our collective memory as revered defenders of freedom, equality and individualism.

Efforts like these miss the point. Zero tolerance does not demand equivalence. It rebukes any act that crosses an established moral threshold, regardless of degree. Liberals and conservatives seem to agree that Washington and Jefferson did more good than bad for the country. They dethroned a tyrant, resisted the urge to seize absolute power in victory, and helped launch an experiment in representative government that has endured.

But they also owned people. Tortured people. Children as young as 10 at Monticello were whipped to the point of disability, separated from their parents and sold, despite Jefferson’s description of the slave trade as “an assemblage of horrors.” Jefferson’s neighbor Edward Coles, by contrast, freed his slaves and gave each family 160 acres of land to start a new life in Illinois. John Conyers is a war veteran, civil rights champion and co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus. But he allegedly asked one of his former staffers to touch his genitals, a request that left the woman “frozen” and terrified of professional reprisals if she declined.

The popularity of the phrase “zero tolerance” is testament to the human desire to place things in neat categories, to label “good guys” and “bad guys.” Many Americans lack the time for more complicated appraisals. Others are blinded by partisan bias, and apply the rigid standard only to the opposition. But recent revelations of misconduct across the political spectrum have exposed the inadequacy of our ethical frameworks. Ethical standards applied in inconsistent and self-serving ways are merely window dressing.

To be fair, congressional Democrats seem to have realized the glaring inconsistency of their initial resistance to punishing their own members for misconduct and have since changed course. But that initial resistance was telling. And many continue to venerate Democrats of the recent past, like Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton, who engaged in similar behavior. Like the assessment of the founders, zero tolerance quickly gives way to nuance when self-interest is at play.

To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that these reexaminations are easy. Quite the opposite. The struggle to reconcile the complex biographies of cherished figures is obvious to anyone who has given these matters serious thought. But moral progress demands, at the very least, honesty about this struggle. Moral frameworks are only useful if they travel well, and the selective application of standards of decency will understandably lead to cynicism.

Americans considering updating their views on sexual harassment can be forgiven for hesitating after seeing one of the issue’s chief defenders waffle when her own political interests are at stake. Is ours a society that judges atrocities on a case by case basis? I hope not. But if it is, we should own those flimsy ethics, and dispense with the phony piety “zero tolerance” implies.

Lauren A. Wright, Ph.D., is a lecturer in politics and public affairs at Princeton University and the author of “On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today.” You can follow her on Twitter @DrLaurenAWright.

Tags Americans Bill Clinton Congress Culture Donald Trump Ethics George Washington Harassment history John Conyers Politics Racism Thomas Jefferson

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