Image courtesy of Nova Scotia's The Chronicle Herald.

Zero tolerance can be a confusing concept. In its most common usage, the idea represents a complete lack of tolerance for intolerance, which is a bit like agreeing with someone who claims you disagree with everything they say. This isn’t the only contradiction that the phrase offers. The foundation of a zero tolerance policy seems to contain a tacit admission that nuance exists in whatever issue it governs, but that the complications surrounding the matter are too multifarious to navigate on an individual basis.

Last week, Dalhousie University suspended 19 of the 24 members of its women’s hockey team, effectively forfeiting their current season. This was the result of a six week investigation into a hazing incident that had allegedly occurred in October. In an interview with CTV Atlantic, university spokesman Charles Crosby explained, “We have zero tolerance when it comes to hazing and intimidation at [Dalhousie].” He continued, “When something like this comes to light we are going to take action.”

That seems like a reasonable response. A questionable event occurred, the university investigated the matter, and then based on its findings, took what it believed to be an appropriate action epithetical to its policies. The action may seem harsh, especially to players in their senior year whose varsity hockey careers have been finished prematurely, but the revelation of recent hazing incidents in other North American universities have resulted in similar fates for perpetrators, all in the name of zero tolerance for hazing rituals.

These guidelines were called into question earlier this week when an anonymous member of the team spoke with The Dalhousie Gazette. She likened the so-called hazing, which included alcohol, embarrassing attire and personal questions, to something that might occur at “any other university party.” This of course assumes that the post secondary education of choice isn’t a focused degree in German brothel management.

In an email exchange with Mr. Crosby, the Dalhousie representative reiterated the university’s policies, and avoided specifics about the results of the investigation for privacy reasons. However, he did reveal that what happened at the party in question was “certainly not what most would classify as what would ‘occur at any other university party.’”

He also contradicted the anonymous student athlete’s claims that confidentiality agreements were sprung upon the team during the investigation, saying that “the agreement was developed between student services and the members of the team; the language was mutually agreed upon during a workshop.” Crosby added that any team member who asked for a copy of the behavioral contract was supplied with one.

The different versions of events being expressed here almost do a good enough job of justifying a no tolerance policy on its own. It’s certainly not ideal, but if the cost of dissuading future incidents of hazing – the dangers on which we can hopefully all agree – is overreacting to isolated incidents, it seems to be a price worth paying.

The part that’s bothersome is that the possibility exists for student athletes to be held to a higher standard and host greater accountability than regular students in yet another aspect of their college life. I’m not suggesting that this is what happened in Halifax. If anything, I’d be willing to defend the university’s measured actions. However, the right to make dim-witted decisions in one’s youth and act recklessly at the expense of one’s own self is something deserving of protection.

There’s a difference between drinking to excess and engaging in behavior that degrades others, and it’s a variation that differs between detrimental action and possibly healthy convention. Put simply, it’s unfair that a party involving student athletes should come under more scrutiny than a party merely involving students.

In examining this issue further, I’m left wondering what recourse a female hockey player who feels wronged might have. A powerless student union? Costly lawyers whose impact wouldn’t be felt until it was too late? Confessions to a student newspaper reporter? It’s an unfair situation in terms of checks and balances, and in order to rationalize it, we have to believe that avoiding the harms of hazing is worth punishing innocents.

That may very well be the case, but informing the wrongly reprimanded of such an imperfect principle is not a task for which I’d volunteer. It’s all very reminiscent of the famous quote from Winston Churchill: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.” It’s quite likely that zero tolerance is the worst policy for dealing with hazing, except for any other that has been tried so far.