Zero Tolerance For Sloganeering Solutions

Open the window to your left and you can hear the drumbeat. Unwelcome sexual advances, including (and now especially) between unguardianed — and unguarded — college students, must be treated as criminal sexual assault.

University of Oregon — and every other college campus — is wrestling with what’s suddenly been recognized as an epidemic of female students encountering unsolicited attention from male classmates. “Even one instance,” so the umbrage goes, “of a young male mistaking ‘go thither’ for ‘come hither’ is one too many.”

Adults know that conversation will solve the situation in most cases, but that doesn’t allow those same adults to vent their outrage, so they add to the drumbeat instead.

Just when we’ve begun to unwind the “Just Say No” debacle, along comes “Yes Means Yes” to take its hard, cramped, self-righteous, small-minded, zero-tolerance place. We should have learned something from 30 years of sloganeering remedies. First, they don’t work. Second, they destroy too many people’s lives. Third, they diminish all of us, because zeroes are good for that.

Yes, I have zero tolerance for “zero tolerance” solutions.

Tolerance, it turns out, is essential to the anatomy of our body politic. It’s the stretchy sinew that joins our muscles of desire to the bones of what’s required of us. More rules (bones) won’t help. Less desire (muscle) won’t happen. More tolerance — which includes understanding — is the only way.

Switching metaphors, society functions as a series of intersections. People go in all different directions, but each wants to get somewhere quickly and safely. Society intervenes when those paths cross. Citizens must know the rules, follow them, and trust others to do the same.

If your particular path is a narrow one, society might ask you to yield to the mainstream, waiting for a safe opportunity to cross the flowing traffic of conventional choice. Where the choices are more evenly matched, a four-way stop will suffice, requiring everyone to pause and watch out for others before proceeding on their way.

When two drivers reach an intersection at the same time, they make eye contact and work it out. Do drivers ever falter in their duty to “look out for others”? Yes, of course — some repeatedly. But that cannot be reason enough to replace every four-way stop with a traffic light. If you’ve ever been stopped at a lonely traffic light, you know what I mean.

We’re giving up on stop signs, crosswalks, merge lanes, and anything else that relies on eye contact between citizens. In their place, we’re putting traffic devices that declare — and now see — clearly who may go and who must stay. Lights! Cameras! Inaction! Fewer choices retards our ability to choose.

Regulations to prevent and repercussions to punish anything considered wayward have narrowed the range of words, actions and intents that we’re left to navigate for ourselves. We wonder why government is getting steadily larger — this is why. We’re refusing to govern ourselves.

So no, I don’t believe every unwanted romantic advance should be prosecuted as sexual assault. Some should, of course. But some shouldn’t. Which ones are which? I don’t know, and neither do you. We should provide assistance — legal, medical, psychological — but abandon the self-serving sanctimony.

My position may make you angry. You might think I’m insensitive, that I haven’t walked a mile in some young woman’s flip-flops, or that I just don’t recognize my white male privilege. That’s fine, and I’m sure if I was sitting with you as you’re reading this, you would say all that to my face — the same way you confront anyone who remarks about another person’s body or cleanliness or work habits or political views.

Oh, you don’t always confront people who disparage others? Why bother creating an awkward situation, right? Well, here’s why. As much as we might like for things to be cut and dried, nobody wants their life to become divided and brittle. Working things out — person to person — is always worth the effort, even when it’s difficult.

Stop to think where our daughters might have learned to avoid the uncomfortable conversations they wish they had had with their first boyfriends.

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