The Limits of Zero Tolerance

This is an excerpt from my longer piece on #metoo and reconciliation.


The limits of zero-tolerance

Those who champion or implement a zero-tolerance response to Norman Hardie, or those who are similarly guilty of sexual misconduct, have offered little or nothing in terms of what his repentance might mean for the judgment against him. Few have asked what a change in Hardie’s person, behaviour, or business operations should mean for his role as a winemaker and for his public presence. If his open letter is genuine and if his commitment to change is real, what difference might this make? The failure to address this question, or to event countenance this possibility, represents a significant problem from the point of view of reconciliation, which orients us toward both judgment and of grace.

We might also ask: If zero tolerance doesn’t work as a response to bullying, and if zero tolerance hasn’t work in relation to marijuana or drug policy, then why do we think that a policy of zero tolerance (admittedly loosely defined, here) will work for those who have engaged in sexual misconduct or harassment? Why do we think that the disappearance of a winemaker and winery from public will finally make a difference for the renewal of a culture, and of sub-cultures, that have contributed to disempowerment and abuse of women? It seems unlikely that it will.

Further, when it comes to zero-tolerance, we often prefer this policy for others and not for those we know and love. A good example here is that of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has adopted something akin to a zero-tolerance policy for members of his caucus and cabinet if any is accused of sexual abuse or harassment. Yet Trudeau himself has not responded meaningfully or adequately to reports that he touched a female reporter inappropriately in August 2000. At first he offered a carefully scripted and ambiguous response—“I don’t remember any negative interactions that day at all”—and then followed up by suggesting he and the woman simply had different experiences of that touching. This, of course, is the kind of response he has refused to accept from others.

Another example is that of David McMillan, owner of the famous Joe Beef restaurant in Montreal. McMillan has referred to Norman Hardie as a scumbag, has stopped serving his wines, and has advocated for a “zero-tolerance” response to him. Yet in the recent case of a chef at Joe Beef who was accused of groping a busser, McMillan refused to fire the chef and instead responded by saying that “the chef is extremely remorseful” and “[he] has proven by his actions he’s a good man, and if he wasn’t, I would have fired him.” But can we have it both ways? Openness and grace toward one’s own employees, but zero tolerance for others? A willingness to work with some in addressing their behaviours, but an unwillingness to work with others in relation to theirs?

We might get at these questions in a slightly different way. As indicated, the LCBO has decided not to stock Norman Hardie wines on its shelves, a decision apparently taken in response to the social pressure of the #MeToo movement. But the important question, from the point of view of reconciliation, is this: What would it take for the LCBO to return Norman Hardie’s wines to its shelves? If the LCBO is capable of rendering judgment against a winemaker, is it also capable of assessing their repentance and renewal in some meaningful way? If the LCBO can ask a winemaker to disappear, can it also create the terms for his return to visibility. The path of reconciliation requires judgment, yes, but always with a view to grace—even if not cheap grace.


For the full piece, and fuller discussion of these and related questions, see here.

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