In Praise of Intolerance

I’ve been thinking about tolerance lately. And now, if you’re willing and keep reading, so will you. We would all agree that we’d like to see more tolerance in the world around us, but we don’t often imagine a world with too much of it.

Last week, we didn’t have to imagine it. We read two front-page news accounts that pointed to situations locally where there has been too much tolerance. The first story was about Eugene Police “Officer Z,” who was the last person — alphabetically and ethically — you’d want to have hanging around with high schoolers. The second story concerned a botched repaving job near Lane Community College.

Take the pavement story first. If Lane County officials are to be believed, “several dozen” citizens called to complain that the right lane of westbound 30th Avenue was making them queasy. The county sent a forensics team to investigate and sure enough, the height of the roadway varied by more than the acceptable quarter-inch.

Portions of the surface were as much as seven-­sixteenths of an inch different, giving drivers the mistaken impression that something must be wrong with their car. (It may also have given them the not-incorrect impression that they were driving too fast, but never mind that.) The county hadn’t ordered traffic-calming “speed-ripples.” They will be smoothed out by the contractor.

Engineers refer to the allowance of such variances (in this case, up to a quarter inch) as “tolerance.” We love uniformity — also called “intolerance” — in ways we never stop to consider. Most building codes require that stairs rise no less than seven inches and no more than eight per step, and that none of the stair rises deviate from the others by more than three-eighths of an inch.

These standardizations are all around us. Pillows are a uniform size. Shower curtains have the same number of grommets. Hot water knobs are always on the left.

Curbs are to be built at a prescribed height. Roadways crown at their centers and slope slightly to guide rainwater into them. All of this is meticulously measured — with very little tolerance — so that you won’t notice. You only know it when it’s taken away, as it was on westbound 30th Avenue.

Standardizations and uniformity make our lives easier. We enjoy the benefits of intolerance. But when it comes to other people, intolerance can lead to confrontation. We’d much rather look the other way.

Witnesses saw former Eugene police officer Stefan Zeltvay acting like a boorish lout at a colleague’s wedding reception. That might have been an opportunity to voice an appropriate measure of intolerance. It might have spared other women similar grief.

Who among us would be willing to confront an off-duty police officer when he kisses a woman without her permission at a friend’s wedding? We’d all rather avoid that sort of unpleasantry, but that’s not tolerance. It’s cowardice. I wish we’d risk that discomfort more often.

Because you don’t always know exactly what it is that you’re tolerating.

I have a neighbor who lives a few doors down from me. He keeps to himself and avoids eye contact. Almost every day, he passes by with a wheelbarrow and an ice chest.

Last week I was weeding in my front yard when he trudged by. I asked him what’s in the ice box. “Ice,” came his monosyllabic reply.

We had a short conversation. Neither of us would have described it as comfortable. I learned that his refrigerator stopped working. Then I learned he has no electricity. Later I learned the power (and running water) were shut off years ago.

I asked several neighbors and none knew his name or his story. His chimney is capped. I don’t know how he has stayed warm in winter. I called Lane County Protective Services and they have made a site visit.

Every day, my neighbor and his wheelbarrow pass 51 houses on his way to the grocery store. (I counted. I’m number 12.) To my knowledge, none of us ever offered him any help. You can call this many things, but today I’m thinking of it as an excess of tolerance.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.