From zero to hero without Nero

By Tim Middleton

Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, better known simply as Nero, was the fifth Roman emperor and ruled from 54 to 68. For most people who have heard of him, though, all we know is that, in line with tradition, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned”. The expression does have an interesting double meaning as, firstly, it can simply mean that he played a musical instrument while the city burned (showing an uncaring, frivolous attitude), and secondly it can mean that he acted corruptly (as in someone ‘fiddling the books”), for it was argued he deliberately caused the Great Fire of Rome as his plans to re-build the city had been scuppered by the government at that time.

The two potential meanings can also reflect the two sides to Nero’s character: he would not tolerate having his actions, decisions or behaviour questioned (killing those who did, including his mother, his wife and Christians, in making the latter the scapegoat for the Great Fire) yet he was completely tolerant of a lifestyle of tyranny, debauchery, extravagance, licentiousness and corruption. His tolerance, therefore, was selective and subjective. He would tolerate certain things but not others.

In contrast we will have come across people that will pronounce they have zero tolerance, full stop! There was a headline in a newspaper a while back which stated there would be “Zero tolerance to veld fire” yet quite how that is to be managed is difficult to grasp — it suggests there will not (must not, even) be any bush fires but how exactly can anyone totally prevent any bushfire happening? If there is such zero tolerance in this country it does not appear to be working!

Some schools will declare they have zero tolerance to drugs, alcohol and cigarettes, meaning they will instantly remove anyone found to be using such — no exceptions, no excuses and no exemptions — all with the intention of eliminating undesirable conduct. They will not turn a blind eye to it; strict punishment will be imposed for such infractions. A rule is a rule, people will say, so punishment is essential; retribution, even restitution (though perhaps disguised as retaliation), must follow, though the purpose of a rule may well have been forgotten. After all, the goal is to prevent the event happening again; restoration is what should really be sought. Such a policy may all be well and good but while it may be eliminating the problem from the school, it is not correcting the behaviour or assisting the perpetrator to overcome his deficiency. Zero tolerance does not always work.

Zero tolerance? Nero tolerance? Where exactly does tolerance fit in here? Because diversity (as we have seen in previous articles) is admirable, desirable even, so people will argue that tolerance is essential. Tolerance is preached as a positive and worthy value to stand alongside diversity. We are told we must be tolerant of others. Young people must learn at school to be tolerant; there is zero place for zero tolerance. So what exactly are we saying? What is this tolerance?

Some will say that tolerance is simply putting up with other people; it is taken to mean that we will accept anyone and everyone, and therefore allow anything and everything. People are different and we must accept them equally, it is said. That all sounds very reasonable, fair, proper and commendable. However it is not the whole story. Yes, we must accept all people; yes, we must tolerate different people’s views and opinions, their likes and dislikes, their behaviour and their motives, even (especially) when they differ from our own. However, we must not tolerate what is wrong; we must not tolerate corruption; we must not tolerate lawlessness of any sort. We simply must not turn a blind eye to what is clearly, legally, morally, ethically, wrong, all in the name of tolerance. We will not tolerate no effort being put into work; we will not tolerate lying, bullying, cheating, stealing. There needs to be a tolerance threshold; we will accept this but no further.

Instead we must celebrate hero tolerance, tolerance that is courageous enough to say it will not tolerate what is wrong. If we do not, we will be guilty of Nero tolerance, in treating trivially or frivolously what is serious and significant. Should we show tolerance to Nero; should we put up with intolerant behaviour? Of course not. There must be zero tolerance of Nero tolerance. Instead we need to stop fiddling around and show Hero tolerance; a tolerance that will accept what is right but not what is wrong. Rome will be nothing if we survive the fiery claims of being intolerant.

l Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS.

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