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Zoning Challenges Now Extend to Feelings and Beliefs

August 7, 2006

Remember when the city of Berkeley, Calif., declared itself a “nuclear-free zone”? Cynics snickered, but the plain fact is that no nuclear weapon has gone off in the city since that day. So the policy seems to be working.

Many communities, mostly left-leaning university towns, have declared themselves nuclear-free. Churches too. The Unitarian Universalist Association is a nuclear-free zone. These moves led to a broad “zone” movement, which is dedicated to the idea that communities can get rid of hate, violence, drunkenness, bullying and nuclear fears, mostly by emphatically declaring these evils to be gone from their areas. Some towns have official panels that oversee efforts to remain nuclear-free.

Several cities, including Seattle and Missoula, Mt., have banished intense negative feelings (or at least kept them on the outskirts of town) by designating themselves as “hate-free zones.” “Hate has no place in our hearts or in our neighborhoods,” a Seattle document says. Nobody wants to come out in favor of hate, but in the old days, you were free to detest anyone at all (Michael Moore, say, or Ann Coulter), as long as you didn’t infringe his or her rights. Authorities thought their job was to monitor illegal harm, not feelings. Now they let us know which emotions are OK to have. Children are routinely urged to announce, “I am a hate-free zone.”

A major blow to the anti-hate movement came in very liberal Santa Cruz, Calif. An initiative to name the city a hate-free zone lost at the polls, possibly because, as one commentator said, residents didn’t want Santa Cruz to be laughed at as another Berkeley. So the city, though an official nuclear-free zone, is not officially free of hate.
One frontier in zone thinking is the drive to establish ridicule-free zones, a spin-off from the anti-bullying and anti-hate campaigns. Relentless ridicule does indeed wreak damage among the young, but there is something creepy about treating all joshing and teasing as ominous steps toward another Columbine massacre. So we get grim cut-the-joking, no-teasing programs that overlook the fact that coping with occasional negative remarks and arguments is a normal part of childhood.

“Teaching a repertoire of alternative, more skillful behaviors is important,” said one ridicule-free missionary who apparently was never young. One earnest program includes a “Don’t laugh at me” project in which children sing victim songs (“I’m a little boy with glasses/The one they call a geek/Don’t laugh at me/Don’t call me names/Don’t get your pleasure from my pain”).

Many colleges now offer special dormitory zones for “the substance-free lifestyle.” This means that 99 percent of the campus is a “substance-rich lifestyle zone” where illegal drugs and underage drinking are permitted. Students must fill out application forms to escape “substance-rich” living, i.e., pot, crack, coke, ecstasy, speed and booze.
There is a problem, of course, with the word “substances.” Since the whole world is made up of substances, can dorm residents maintain their footing on a “substance-free floor”? Can colleges truly offer a substance-free education? (Never mind. We know the answer to that.)

Many universities play the zone game to inhibit free speech. They announce one or two small “free-speech zones,” thus establishing almost all of the campus as a place where speeches, rallies and protests are forbidden. Reminded of the First Amendment by suits and threats to sue, many offending universities have backed down and opened their entire campuses for student expression.

Zone people seem to be everywhere these days. Some churches set aside a few pews as aroma-free zones for believers who use no perfume, cologne or other scents. In the United Kingdom, GM-free zones ban genetically modified food.

Amnesty International once talked about “torture-free zones.” Many public schools have “safe zones,” on the dubious proposition that student hostility to homosexuals is so widespread that gays can feel safe only in rooms marked with pink triangles.
Pittsburgh, in an effort to prevent harassment outside abortion clinics, set up a “no-speech” zone nears clinic entrances. It’s a violation to say anything at all within 15 feet of a doorway or within 8 feet of anyone standing 100 feet or less from any entrance. Zone politics trumps the First Amendment.

What will social historians of the future say about zone thinking? Probably that it is a highly therapized form of moral posturing and a strange attempt to cope with problems and alleged problems by walling off tiny areas. Obsessing over teasing and name-calling, for example, instead of addressing the bigger problem of building character in a troubled culture. More zone-free politics, please.

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