There are certain principles for which “zero-tolerance” is entirely appropriate. Murder, rape, any serious crime for that matter. But no one is perfect. And no amount of punishment is going to make anyone perfect. Just think about the phrase “zero-tolerance”. Is that really a policy we want to adopt in ALL situations? Is zero-tolerance compatible with our American ideals? Is it compatible with our religious ideals?
There is another principal in Western civilization that says “The punishment should fit the crime”. Yet in this era of zero-tolerance and political correctness run amuck, too often the careers and reputations of offenders are being destroyed even if they are simply someone who showed bad judgment or behaved in an insensitive, immature or inappropriate way. Such extreme sanctions should remain reserved for the most blatant and severe criminal behavior.
I’ve already spoken in a recent entertainment blog about the case of comedian and talkshow host Chris Hardwick who was temporarily suspended because of allegations of abuse and blacklisting made by his ex-girlfriend. While I’m fully supportive of #MeToo and make no excuses for bad behavior, there is a significant difference between someone like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby as compared to some guy who had a bad breakup with an ex-girlfriend. Men (and women) need to be held accountable for their bad behavior but the consequences of that bad behavior need not always be the total destruction of a person’s career or even their reputation.
Two cases have recently been prominent in the media… one national and one more local. Locally we have the case of sports broadcaster Bob Lamey who recently retired as the play-by-play announcer for the Indianapolis Colts radio broadcasts. He has received numerous accolades for three decades of quality work as a broadcaster and announcer not only for the Indianapolis Colts but for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and other activities. He is much beloved and respected by fans, fellow journalists, and athletes.
A couple of days after his announced retirement, the story broke that there was more than meets the eye behind the story. Lamey had used the N-word and an African-American woman who heard the conversation was seriously offended. She reported it to human resources who in turn reported it to the Indianapolis Colts who are his employer. The story of his retirement made no mention of the incident so the woman involved told her version of events to the media.
While his use of a racial epitaph was inappropriate and insensitive, he was not using the word himself. He was recounting a story in which someone else had used the word and he quoted them verbatim. While he could have substituted the phrase “N-word” when telling the story, he didn’t. He should have. It was insensitive. It was inappropriate. One can argue it is indefensible.
But it doesn’t make him a racist.
I have no problem with a zero-tolerance policy towards racism. Racism needs to be called out, confronted, condemned, and the consequences of those who are shown to be racist should be severe.
I also don’t deny the power of the word and all that its history implies. In this recent editorial in the Indianapolis Star columnist Suzette Hackney says “Dear white people, stop using the N-word”. She makes her case much more eloquently than I could especially since I’m an old white guy. I would have to agree with pretty much everything she says.
She points out that the use of the word by African-Americans themselves is not license for others to use it. I can agree with that. She admits it’s a double standard.
The point with which I cannot agree in this debate is that the use of a particular word without taking into consideration the context in which it was used should not be grounds for total condemnation of the person using the word or the total destruction of their career and/or reputation.
The complainant in the Lamey case went on TV and expressed her outrage at the accolades being served upon him. In her opinion, the single use of this word not directed toward someone but by merely quoting someone else’s use was sufficient to make him unworthy of any form of praise. She was appalled by those who say that Lamey deserved to be enshrined in the Colts “Ring of Honor” at Lucas Oil Stadium.
To me this is totally ridiculous. There has been zero evidence that Lamey is anything beyond a person who made and insensitive remark. There have been no accusations of racism in any way shape or form.
The Colts organization have finally acknowledged that they accepted his resignation because of the incident. It’s unfortunate that they could not have been more open about the reason for his retirement but I can understand that they would want to allow him the dignity of a quiet retirement so that he might avoid the kind of unjustified over-the-top condemnation he has now received. Even complainant acknowledges that at the time of the incident, upon realizing that he had made a mistake, he profusely apologized. In another embarrassing incident a few years ago when he slipped up and dropped an F bomb during a Colts broadcast he was also greatly embarrassed by the mistake and sincerely apologized.
How did we become a society that is so easily offended by the mere utterance of a single word? What happened to the old adage “Sticks and stones will break my bones but names can never hurt me?” How did we lose our ability to forgive?
The other similar story that has been dominating the national news is the story of “Papa” John Schnatter the founder of Papa John’s Pizza who admitted to using the N-word on a public relations call. Schnatter has resigned as chairman of the company he founded as well as from various other boards and organizations. He has been a renowned philanthropist who has donated money to several universities and other organizations which have seen fit to remove his name from buildings that were named in his honor as a result of his philanthropy. When Ball State University decided not to remove his name from a building and issued a statement saying that they could forgive his insensitive misstep, the outcry which arose forced them to reverse their previous decision to be compassionate and forgiving.
While I do not know the full details or context in which he used the N-word, from everything I’ve read it was a situation similar to Lamey in which he was not making use of the word himself but quoting someone else. Again it was inappropriate, insensitive, and worse than Lamey it was in a more public setting. Again there have been no accusations of racism… merely obvious insensitivity and inappropriate use of the word. Like the columnist said… Dear white people, don’t use the N-word. But does this offense warrant the total destruction of his career and the erasure of his philanthropic work? Chris Hardwick had his name removed from the website nerdist.com as its founder as if he had never existed let alone created the organization. The erasure of someone from history is a tactic straight out of the totalitarianism in the novel “1984”. We are erasing from history the good works of people over singular missteps.
Don’t get me wrong… I don’t think every rich guy who put his name on buildings has free license to espouse racist views. If for some reason that was too subtle for you I’m talking about Donald Trump.
When we impose such extreme sanctions on the relatively minor offense of an insensitive comment as we do on those who are blatantly and undeniably racist then we diminish the severity of those who truly are racist. If there is only one level of offense and one level of punishment it unjustly punishes those with minor offenses and it unjustly lessens the impact of those who commit major offenses.
The word “prejudice” means to prejudge a situation. It means to call judgment upon someone without taking any consideration all of the circumstances. It ignores context. In our battle against true prejudice we are prejudging anyone who commits any offense whatsoever. Zero-tolerance as a policy can only be justified in the most extreme cases. Zero-tolerance was the justification for separating immigrant children from their parents over misdemeanor charges. Zero-tolerance does not allow for degrees of offense. It does not allow for the punishment to fit the crime. It does not allow for compassion nor forgiveness. It doesn’t allow for one’s intent to be considered beyond the actual offense.
The only way that we can survive as a society is to find it in our hearts to find tolerance where it is justified. To find compassion for all. And to forgive others especially when they have credibly expressed repentance for their mistakes. If we cannot do this, our civilization will cease to be civil and thus cease to be at all.