Zero Tolerance

An evident symptom of worn-out word is its incorporation into the discourse on the politically correct. When a word falls into this black hole (where everything can fit because there is nothing there, and what does enter loses its purpose), paradoxically reduces its usefulness upon increasing its use. Recently my attention was called to a television commercial which promoted special products for the lactose-intolerant, saying:  « Zero tolerance to “that’s just a woman’s thing”. Zero tolerance to not feeling good. Stick with what’s good! »

The text is great! Besides selling, with the final phrase, the philosophy of the mass-man and his «impression (…) that life is easy», against what Ortega y Gasset warned us a century ago, adopts the euphemism of “zero tolerance”, which has penetrated into our society little by little. This recently born syntagm came to life linked to the discourse against the so-called “domestic violence” —another euphemism of the politically correct: bad influences also function in language— and it has been slowly incorporated into other discourses against uncivil or criminal behavior. The topic is once again in fashion due to the sad data provided by the EU and due to the recent assassinations of women in our country. 

Due to the graveness of the situation of violence against women, the euphemism of intolerance may go by unnoticed, but its implications are also important. On the one hand, tolerance is presented as a quality in which different degrees exist, among them degree zero, the absence of tolerance, meaning intolerance. On the other hand, this latter term is usually avoided because to be intolerant is to be dogmatic, to not accept the relativity of the truth. Obviously, the discourse is contradictory.

An error is understandable. At the base of civilized and democratic society lie human rights as an undisputed truth (absolute, not relative), based on inherent dignity to the human being. Take inherent as meaning farther than any external circumstance, whether it be a law, an opinion, the need to solve the crisis or the conjunction of the stars.

However, this dignity and its obliged respect do not extend to acts and ideas. The prevailing belief is that most of all, we must be tolerant and respectful and realize that all opinions are respectable and must be respected. The problem or contradiction arises when we find ourselves before a behavior that goes against the basic principles of society; when we find that someone is of the opinion, for example, that man is superior to women and therefore, has the right to abuse women. Other similar ideas were, for example that the Jews deserved to be exterminated or more recently, that the defense of a religion had the right to crash planes and blow up trains, killing thousands of persons. In such cases, what can be done? The maximum of “the most fundamental is to not be intolerant” cannot be contravened and therefore, it cannot be denied that these opinions “have their own truth”. The answer is to resort to the subterfuge of the euphemism: we are not intolerant; we have “zero tolerance”.

It would be a good idea to remember Machado now: «Your truth? No, the Truth». Let’s not deceive ourselves; not everything is relevant. Not all opinions have the same importance and we should not tolerate everything. If things were this way, neither good nor bad would exist.  Everything would be negotiable and we would not be able to censure opinions or behaviors: everything would have to be permitted. It is strange that these ideas frequently are based on Ortega’s philosophy. Ortega’s perspective (whoever reads very little, explains badly and cannot be understood easily) does not speak of multiple truths, but rather of different perspectives regarding a one and only truth, which is human nature to try and reach: «Man is the being that absolutely needs the truth», he said. This implies that we should not settle for just branding everything with an opinion, subjective and valid like any other. In other words, all human beings merit respect and therefore, they all have the right to freely express their opinions; but this does not mean that all opinions have the same value (no do they necessarily have any value at all). No one would ever think to tell a doctor, when he gives a prescription for a cough syrup that we need, that “this would just be his opinion”; however, we feel that a neighbor’s opinion is valid when she recommends another type of cough syrup that “worked for her”.  

Let us free ourselves from the dictatorship of the “politically correct”; let us not permit that liberties be on top of that which gives them meaning (human dignity), nor should we accept the opposite, an opinion justifying the ending of a life or vice versa, that someone uses freedom of thought to demand that the ending of human lives be approved.

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