Can we forgive ignorance? Or must the price for stupidity be the destruction of the life of one guilty of not understanding the mores and manners of their time or a time that has not yet come?
Americans, it seems, are addicted to the notion that we can modify social behavior by heaping punishment and opprobrium on those who flaunt social conventions. It took us 40 years to stop filling the prison system with drug users whose crime was using a drug that I use frequently to reduce pain and swelling in my feet.
The essential notion behind “zero tolerance” is that making a horrific example out of a transgressor will so scare others that the targeted behavior will be eradicated. In this country, the notion is packaged politically as “zero tolerance” or “three strikes you’re out” or a “war” on this or that.
Zero tolerance and its battle accoutrements failed to stop the use of marijuana or more pernicious drugs such as cocaine, heroin and opioids. The message of fear that aims to deter sometimes results in attracting us and creates a more profitable enterprise for the vendors of harmful substances.
We see the president has essentially embraced fear as a deterrent to immigration across the southern (but not northern) border, countenancing the separation of children from parents as a weapon to deter other families from attempting to flee here to escape economic or physical nightmares.
The children so abusively punished — and there is no doubt that separating children from their parents is psychologically destructive — are innocent and without complicity in the behavior the president aims to control. Beyond the harm of separation lies the punitive actions of so-called “guards” who inflict upon the interned children additional abuse, much as a minority of sadistic prison guards whip up on adult prisoners.
Zero tolerance philosophy tolerates such behavior in the name of deterrence: If you don’t want this to happen to your children, stay away — the same message used with respect to abuse in prisons. Here and around the world, authorities posterize fear to modify behavior including immigration both legal and illegal, drug use and other offenses such as being openly gay.
America is not alone in this regard: China and Singapore boast of reduced drug problems consequent to their harsh treatment of offenders including the death penalty. This philosophy has even extended to jail time for having an unpaid parking ticket on one’s dashboard.
Regrettably, the Democrats who should be most wary of the ineffectiveness and injustice of zero tolerance seem to be embracing what the Republicans have long touted: extreme punishment for behavior that was once socially acceptable but now we know is not. The demand for the resignation of the governor of Virginia for allegedly appearing in a photo wearing black face standing next to a faux Klansman represents a sort of career death penalty for ignorant and hurtful behavior.
Growing up in the racialized Chicago political culture where ethnic white people wore campaign buttons featuring a slice of watermelon with a “no” circle and slash to attack the black candidate, I was acutely aware of racial bias and its pervasive hold on the city.
But it wasn’t until the civil rights movement in the 1960s and ‘70s that I became aware that the KKK was more than just a long-past political movement seen largely in grainy black and white movies, that lynching was still ongoing and there was a war on blacks who were advocates of open carry long before rural righties and the NRA took up the cause.
There is a lot of history around the use of blackface as a political diminutive, history of which I was unaware as many of us were unaware until as recently as 2016 that the KKK was resurgent and tacitly embraced as good people — a mere counterbalance to “extremists” uppity enough to dethrone the Confederate heroes of the past from their shrines in public places.
Do we really need to kill off the career of a Virginia governor in the name of “zero tolerance?” Can we forgive someone ignorant enough to think shoe polish is an OK Halloween accessory to a costume memorializing one of America’s greatest entertainers who, incidentally, white-faced himself over the years in the name of cosmetic glamour?
We get nowhere trying to deter behavior that happened years ago in a climate of ignorance, the same nowhere we reach by punishing 4-year-old kids in hopes of deterring other adults from fleeing gang violence and poverty or incarcerating marijuana users.