I have friends who have “zero tolerance” for violence. Folks I truly love and respect. But I’m afraid I have to call their zero-tolerance rhetoric a bit of a façade; or else they live in a bit of a cotton-wrapped non-reality. For me, zero tolerance isn’t realistic; from my perspective there is an optimal level of “violence”, but it’s a grey-area which the human animal struggles with.
It’s worth taking some time to break the concept down. What exactly constitutes violence? Is it only physical acts, or does it include words? What about in self-defense, or to prevent further violence? You’re welcome to have your own definition, but there’s a definitely a grey-area. As far as I’m concerned, it’s far better to go to the gym and hit a boxing bag than to hit your partner during an argument, but striking a bag is still violence. As for the gentle act of putting pen to paper, I completely advocate you expressing your emotions to your diary rather than screaming in hatred at your ex — but that vitriolic rant in your diary is still violent in nature. And at the risk of setting the bar too high, I will push the envelope even further. You very well may have the self-control to say, “God bless you,” and walk away after someone spits in your face (and I truly salute you in that case). But that anger you overcame, that urge to strike back: those thoughts are red, hot and violent. Violence is all around us, insidiously.
Here’s my personal reality. I have toddlers who lash out in frustration sometimes — they scream, hit or push. At the age of 37, there have been times in my life where I’ve raised my voice in anger. In basketball and soccer, you bet I’ve charged at the goal aggressively knowing I could injure my opponent. Can you detect any violence?
And here’s society’s reality. We revel in sports such as football (rugby, soccer, American football…) and boxing. Leather and chicken dinners (nuff said). Violence in movies is a given. A grandparent will be asked repeatedly to tell his war stories. Literature, with all its violence, is the bedrock of childhood and adult imagination. The Bible, in its R-rated glory, is left in motels and hospitals. Many people applaud the discipline which young army reservists acquire but ignore the context. Folks proudly spruik the quality of their educational heritage, forgetting that those schools had a very non-metaphorical rod as their bottom line for misbehaviour. And if push comes to shove, even the most zero-tolerant person would find themselves striking back if attacked or if a family member were being assaulted. Zero tolerance makes a hypocrite of anyone who participates in any of the above because they all involve some form of violence.
So for me, a violence-free community (according to this broad definition) is a pie in the sky. Zero tolerance denies individuals the process of humanity, and ultimately it’s hypocritical. Even the most peaceful of us typically have a less tranquil back-story: everyone has a journey which requires some tolerance, even if it’s just to allow your past self to have existed. We would do better to admit we’ve had violent thoughts, feelings, impulses and reactions, and aim for optimal ways of dealing with these.
To illustrate the short-fall of zero tolerance, let’s consider children — for example, when a child lashes out verbally, snatches something or hits-out in retaliation (or even accidentally strikes another child clumsily). There are some hallmarks of a zero tolerance approach. Firstly, the tendency is to condemn and blame, firstly the aggressor but then then their mentors are also implicated. A typical outflow is blaming a parent for their child’s behaviour (and comments about parenting styles can be quite cutting and judgemental). After all, if it weren’t for a measure of tolerance in the home, the child would never behave in such a way, or so the reasoning goes. In contrast, there’s an “optimal level of violence” approach which has a different set of assumptions. It holds that kids will get frustrated and in the process of growth acquire increasingly more appropriate ways of dealing with their emotions and conflicts. Therefore some violence — in both thought and action — is taken for granted and actually deemed appropriate for their stage of life. There’s a sense of acceptance. And this acceptance allows parents to find their own ways of minimising the violence in a context of non-condemnation. It’s simply being realistic, yet in no way does it advocate pain or hurtful actions. Moreover, aiming for an optimal level of violence nurtures genuine and transparent conversation about discipline styles rather than assuming that anything resembling violence — either words or actions — is automatically damnable. With kids, the one assumed common goal is minimisation of hurt — zero tolerance is only one possible approach, but not the best one in my opinion.
Another case worth considering is DV (domestic violence). Zero tolerance is flawed in that it cannot handle the grey-areas of violence which creep up in our lives, and the finger tends to only get pointed at the most extreme forms of physical violence. Sure, one individual did the man-handling, but the other was cursing and shouting. Both are violent in nature, but the one who man-handled is given the majority of the attention. I think it is merely a surface-level-solution to condemn the physical violence but ignore the rest of it. Zero tolerance just short-circuits at the suggestion that smashing your fist on a desk is actually better than punching your husband or wife; you need to be flexible to admit that. Instead, zero tolerance imposes an arrogant attitude which says, “Well I’m perfect so you should be also.” Conversely, aiming for an optimal level of violence is empathetic in nature: it genuinely leaves the door open to the idea of finding a punching bag – a literal punching bag, just for those moments. All the while, there is never any suggestion that smashing anything is ideal or good. [Please note: this simplistic DV scenario aptly makes my point but certainly doesn’t adequately represent the full scope of DV where, for example, sometimes the violence is completely unprovoked and where the blame ought to be apportioned differently. However, the flaws of a zero-tolerance approach certainly still apply. The path forward is to present an empathetic solution to the violence, rather than merely heaping on condemnation.]
These examples illustrate well the impossibility of expecting a home to be 100% free of violence — at very least there will exist some angry emotions, or kids which erupt at some point. Such forms of violence must be tolerated, and assuming they are, then optimal ways of handling them can be negotiated. I am not condoning hurtful behaviour, rather I’m urging realism and honesty which leads to character growth. I am laying the groundwork for conversations such as these:
- “I do sometimes get violent thoughts. How should I handle it?”
- “There was a time I very nearly hit you and it scared the hell out of me. I never ever want us to reach that level of conflict again. We need some strategies for the future.”
- “My kids are such terrors; they’re always fighting.”
“Yeah, kids will be kids!”
“But the other day they fought at the park and some stranger’s kid got knocked over. I’m afraid they’ll really hurt or influence the other kids around them.”
- “Did you know that the Smiths actually smack their kids? I’ve shouted at my kids plenty of times but I’d never smack them.”
“Oh, when I was a kid it would terrify me when my parents raised their voice but my brother wouldn’t bat an eyelid. He would only listen if they used the wooden spoon.”
“But aren’t the Smiths supposed to be Christians?”
“Yeah, I know. Christianity is so contradictory: Jesus was non-violent but then the Bible says ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’.”
I think all parents, partners, athletes, law enforcers — everyone in society, when at their best — would like to live their life without hurting others, and especially innocent bystanders. But some people think aggressive sports are beautiful, and some folks release their steam-valve via a boxing bag. Some people use violent words in journals and in gossip. Still others use preventative violence in their vocation — for example, a policeman might restrain a drunk man — for the purpose of curtailing further violence. We are all complicit in some form of violence, even if it’s just to reduce it, so it should be clear that there is a common enemy for all of these coping strategies, and that enemy is zero tolerance. I applaud the intent of folks who preach zero tolerance — you and I are in fact on the same team — but there’s a better, more honest and compassionate path I think. And that path starts with the question, “What is the optimal way of handling the violence here?”