One or More Percent Tolerance

I’m self-employed; I work alone, usually one-on-one with clients. I do have a set of guidelines I give to prospective clients, but I must say that I do not have any hard-and-fast rules.

In my line of work, there’s no “zero tolerance”.

I first heard that term during the brief period my children were in elementary school (before I started homeschooling them). At the time, it was “zero tolerance for violence”. Any student who participated in any sort of violence was suspended from school. Naturally, it didn’t take long for even the Grade 1 students to discover that one thrown chair could get you anywhere up to a week at home. My wee little darling, who was frustratingly active but not inclined to violence, was discovered by his (rational) teacher whilst in the planning stages of a group suspension. He and his cohorts thought it would be great to get out of school. We had to have a little chat about the consequences of actions and exactly how much fun a week in the company of his livid mother would be.

When I was in my early 20s, when the world was black and white, I probably would have agreed with the concept of zero tolerance. By the time I was in my late 20s, the world was starting to get rather grey around the edges. Now, all I see are variants of grey.

Thus, I have “guidelines” rather than “rules”. (Think Pirates of the Caribbean; include the eye-role, if you like.)

My guidelines are designed to protect me but, as a human, I find I need only so much protection. I bounce back from most insults and injuries. Sure, I’ll drop a client if they cancel too often, but if the cancellation involves family catastrophes, the sudden death of both grandparents always trumps anything involving me. I really don’t like being kicked, but if the child is kicking me because that’s the only way they can communicate–and I’ve been hired to teach them to communicate in more effective ways–then zero tolerance begets failure for everyone. 

My other problem with the phrase is that it makes people feel too comfortable. They trust the words and distance themselves from the nitty-gritties of a particular situation, and then everything falls apart when the grey areas show up. Most often, those grey areas are people. They are individuals with faces and names, and they don’t fit into the box for whatever reason.

Frequently, the grey areas surround the powerful people who have instituted the zero-tolerance policy and feel it doesn’t actually apply to them. (They are, after all, “good people” who have instituted a zero-tolerance policy.) As well, if zero tolerance is applied to a behaviour one wants to end, said behaviour merely goes underground until it becomes tolerated again. (See thousands of attempts across history and cultures to ban birth control, alcohol, drugs, sex work, etc.) This leaves the powerful sanctimonious and the vulnerable at risk.

Now’s the time to have a large swig of your tea. Gird your loins: I’m about to suggest an appropriate use of numbers. This is math, people. Math.

Let’s use any positive integer other than zero. For situations that might hurt another person, we can start small–1% or 2% tolerance–and see if that achieves the desired effect. That way, teenagers in a consensual sexual relationship won’t end up on the (bloody stupid) sex offender registry, but people won’t have to put up with being sexually assaulted. In other situations, where the only risk is to the individual, we could up it to, say, 99% tolerance… and we might learn something new.

It’s a different plant, but it’s still a nice plant.


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