Friday, October 16, 2009

Outrage Addicts and Zero Tolerance

"Outrage Addicts" are a peculiar set of amateur commenters, quick to express their shock and dismay about the latest offense against "common sense", and eager to decry the bureaucrats or activists who wander into their crossfire. They thrive on disgruntlement and tend to view themselves as homespun geniuses of horse sense - if only the world would check in with them before acting, it would be a better, if less outrageous, place.

(As an aside, this group tends to be the absolute worst at fact-checking, though the very outrages they speak against tend to be those that cry out for suspicion. Thus, they send out their OMG via emails and blog posts on "controversies" that are almost always fictional or exaggerated. Thus, a suit about a religious symbol on public land mysteriously becomes an attempt to remove the crosses from Arlington Cemetery, and a product liability lawsuit filed becomes a multi-million dollar award for a misspelled word in a warning label. Snopes is their buzz-kill.)

All of which is a lengthy introduction to the latest "outrage" circulating through the community of Outrage Addicts, and their long-suffering email companions. A 6 year-old Cub Scout in Delaware brought a camp eating utensil to school, and was suspended under a post-Columbine zero-tolerance policy against bringing weapons to school. Under the policy, he could conceivably be sent to the District's reform school for 45 days, and so that is the exaggerated threat being reported by the Outrage Addicts.

In this instance, the Outrage Addicts have the facts mostly right, partially because they are relying on a report by the New York Times. (More commonly, the outrage of the week comes from less credible sources, like AM radio or World Net Daily.) Of course, the threat is exaggerated and the slanted facts are picked like ripe red cherries, and the fact that the School District has already resolved the problem in favor of the little boy has not caught up (and never will catch up) to the exaggerated story of his peril, but that's part and parcel of stories like this one.

While this particular anecdote is being circulated as an attack on zero tolerance policies, the same facts could be used as an instance of outrage if the official response had been to ignore the tiny knife-wielder.
"Troubled child from a broken home, in defiance of well-publicized policy to protect his tiny classmates from injury and death, brandishes a knife in the classroom. Upon being stopped before the blade 'accidentally' removed some little girl's eye, he claimed he only brought it to use on his lunch. His irresponsible single mother, who sent her child to school armed with a knife even though she knew of the policy, is seeking to get the policy changed so that 6 year-olds can carry weapons to school when they or their parents see fit."
Outrageous, isn't it? If the story had included a few other facts, such as a child being accidentally hurt or, God forbid, if the child had been poor and a minority, these same circumstances could be circulated among the Outrage Addicts as a shining example of why common sense requires that we need a strong policy of zero-tolerance to protect our children from these knife-wielding barbarians.

So, in that context, what does the outrage du jour teach us about the impact of zero-tolerance policies? Sadly, it teaches us almost nothing, except for the fact that they can, in some instances, result in penalties for those who choose to ignore them. But acts portrayed as outrageous can have a disproportionate impact on public policy.

Long before the Delaware Dagger case made headlines in the Times, serious people have been struggling with the issue of the impact of zero-tolerance policies. Some argue that they over-criminalize, and others argue that more discretionary policies result in discrimination against minorities and ignoring dangerous behavior. A quick search can turn up dozens of studies supporting either view.

Honestly, I have no spectacular wisdom on the subject of zero-tolerance policies (surprised, aren't you?). Having glanced at a few of the studies and given it a bit of thought, I probably lean against them, and certainly acknowledge that, for them to be fair and effective, they need to be drafted with incredible care and forethought - more of both than one typically finds in policy manuals.

But I insist that my knowingly-uninformed indecisiveness is superior to the knee-jerk "common sense" being spread by the Outrage Addicts. I know what I don't know, and I would not want to form public policy on the basis of a cherubic 6 year-old Cub Scout who wanted to eat lunch with his new toy. My critical faculties make me realize that I could just as easily be forming public policy on the basis of a thuggish 6 year-old crack baby sent to school with a blade by an unemployed drug-dealing mom.

Reaction to outrageous anecdotes is a poor substitute for careful thought. If we're going to engage in a rational discussion of zero-tolerance - and I think that's a great discussion to have - then let's be careful to look at both the angels and the demons.

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8 Comments:

Anonymous GMC70 said...

But I insist that my knowingly-uninformed indecisiveness is superior to the knee-jerk "common sense" being spread by the Outrage Addicts.

Of course you do. Even as you admit:

Honestly, I have no spectacular wisdom on the subject of zero-tolerance policies.

Both of these statements tell us nothing about zero-tolerance policies (which are almost uniformly zero common sense policies), but a great deal about your innate superiority those who dare to disagree with you.

Having spent over a decade in public schools, I can tell you with no doubt that zero tolerance policies are not about safety at all; they're about posturing. They let the school say "we care" while removing actual judgement calls from those paid big bucks to make judgements.

You decry the possible abuses; true enough. I have a "common sense" solution: don't like the judgements made by those paid to make them? Fire them. Find someone else.

But don't impose a "one size fits all" mentality to situations which are quite different. While it is wrong to treat similarly situated individuals differently, it is equally wrong to treat differently situated individuals the same. And if you can say, with a straight face, that a six year old with a Cub Scout knife ought to be legitimately treated the same as a middle-school gangbanger with a switchblade, it is indeed you, Dan, who lack any semblence of common sense.

10/16/2009 8:40 AM  
Blogger I Travel for JOOLS said...

With all due respect, the way to get rid of the outrage addicts is to get rid of 24/7 cable tv which would in turn get rid of the bloggers and tweeters and such, which in turn would get rid of the outrage addicts who write outrageous comments. Of course, we could also get rid of the internet which would solve the whole thing.

Since none of the above is going to happen short of a nuclear holocaust or global warming, yours truly will drop by once in a while to write outrageous comments such as this.

Hi Dan :-)

10/16/2009 8:53 AM  
Anonymous GMC70 said...

And I'd note, as an aside, Dan, that no one, I mean NO ONE, gins up outrage like the moonbat left.

That's just a fact.

10/16/2009 11:23 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

GMC, was the decade you spent in public schools actually 10 years of trying to pass kindergarten? :-) If you would reread the post, you would understand the post is about the flaws of reacting to stories of outrage, not about zero tolerance itself. There is no rational way to read this as a defense of zero-tolerance policies in a post where I point out I lean toward opposing them.

Go back and try to find where I argued, straight face or not, that "a six year old with a Cub Scout knife ought to be legitimately treated the same as a middle-school gangbanger with a switchblade".

As for your parting shot about the "moonbat left", I'd disagree only to point out the the use of zero-tolerance was embraced by both sides of the aisle, and criticisms of the policies comes from both sides of the aisle.

The attempt to shape policy by outrage rather than analysis is similarly used by both sides of the aisle. I remember an instance of some elderly nuns being denied the opportunity to vote because of voter ID requirements (note that under such efforts, there is zero-tolerance for voters without proper ID) - I'd agree with you that some on the left used that instance as an "outrage" far more emotive than a careful statistical study of potential disenfranchisement. So, yeah, the technique is employed by both sides, though I see no evidence of either side having a superior skill with it.

10/16/2009 12:56 PM  
Blogger m.v. said...

I once was fired due to 0-tolerance for fighting on the job, even though I was pretty much attacked and had to defend myself and no one denied that it wasn't my fault. They just said 0 means 0, no questions asked. That policy is stupid, it should be on case-by-case basis. In the end it worked out for me since I went on to a better job/more money. Still no love for the policy.

10/16/2009 3:17 PM  
Blogger Muddy Mo said...

"snopes.com is their buzz-kill"

Great stuff, Dan. Your description capsulizes these folks mindset very well.

"was the decade you spent in public schools actually 10 years of trying to pass kindergarten?"

Ouch.

10/17/2009 8:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

I don't think the right or the left has a monopoly on false outrage or "outrage addiction". We've been indulged like spoiled children to pop off on any subject without stopping to think or gather facts. Just opine, and do it with vigor!

Nuance is for pussies. Oh, that reminds me, the righties ARE probably better at outrage since they are not slowed by facts and see deliberation as sissified and wimpy.

10/21/2009 7:22 PM  
Blogger CecilC said...

Your last paragraph refers to "careful thought." I fear such thought was absent when most zero tolerance policies were adopted. The idea seems to be that public officials cannot be trusted with to weigh the merits of a situation and take a milder or harsher approach based on the facts. Some federal judges have voiced that complaint about sentencing guidelines. And who among us has not been frustrated by an underpaid bureaucrat who refuses to grant a reasonable request on a pretty silly technicality.

Just to disclose my bias here, I'm suspicious of any policy based on the assumption that the nitwits who administer it must not ever be allowed to exercise judgment.

Good post, Dan!

10/22/2009 9:54 AM  

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