let’s be clear

After a fan spent an entire match calling a Duke volleyball player a n****r and threatening her, Brigham Young University released a statement saying, “We will not tolerate behavior of this kind. Specifically, the use of a racial slur at any of our athletic events is absolutely unacceptable and BYU Athletics holds a zero-tolerance approach to this behavior.” But here’s the thing: you did tolerate it, for an entire volleyball match. No one did anything, no one said anything to the abusive fan. Your fans and your officials, including police, silently tolerated it for hours. The offending fan was banned only after the match and after the Duke player who was the primary target of his abuse went public. Saying that “BYU Athletics holds a zero-tolerance approach to this behavior” is therefore a plain old lie. 

But of course it’s what people say in these circumstances. “Zero-tolerance” is a phrase that people use in a vain attempt to ward off evil. Whenever any institution makes an official statement declaring that they have a “zero-tolerance approach” to anything, everyone knows what it means: We have been infinitely tolerant to this kind of behavior in the past, and we just got caught, so we have to make a statement. It’s like calling yourself a “patriot” or an “anti-fascist” — it means precisely the opposite of what it says. 

UPDATE: I now do not know whether anything I say in the first paragraph above is true — which means that I made a false accusation against BYU Athletics. (Even if what I said were to turn out to be true, I didn’t know it was true when I said it and therefore should have kept silent.) This is a useful reminder that every time I fail to stick with my policy of avoiding writing about current events, I come to regret it. 

The general point I make in the second paragraph is often correct, but I’ve ruined its usefulness by linking it to a disputed case. 

I always learn my lessons — I just have to learn the same lessons about fifty times.