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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Of Fires, Fire Extinguishers, and Society

This began life as a rant, but I realized that rants, while emotionally gratifying, are rarely productive. This is my attempt to create something more productive. Hopefully, it works.

On Fire

An uncontrolled fire is one of the most dangerous things on the planet. For a large chunk of human history, uncontrolled fire equaled disaster. An entire city could be wiped out because someone misplaced a torch or dropped a lantern. It's therefore not surprising that many cultures devote a great deal of time and effort to stopping uncontrolled fires from happening.

In modern America, we've done a pretty good job of this. Certainly, uncontrolled fires still happen, but we have a lot of systems in place to deal with them. Gavin DeBecker noted that school children still do lots of fire drills, despite the fact that very few people are actually harmed in school fires (it's buried in this article).

I'm doing some hypothesizing here, so if there are individuals who know more about fire safety than I do, feel free to correct me.

The way I see it, there are three ways a fire can start: an "act of G-d", human error, or human malice.

Act of G-d

Sometimes, fires start because physics is not on your side that day. An errant lightening strike, a faulty wiring system (that might be human error, but it's so distant from the event that it's functionally out of the control of someone directly affected by it), or some other event that happens from circumstances totally outside of anyone's control.

Human Error

Sometimes, fires start because people do things they shouldn't. Children play with matches. A stove gets left on, or a towel is placed to close to a burner. A campfire isn't properly placed.

Human Malice

Sometimes, people deliberately start fires, because they are not nice people.

Now, as a society, we've gotten pretty good about dealing with fire. Not perfect (fires still happen), but good. Mostly because we approach the problem on two fronts: education and fire extinguishers.


From a young age, we teach our children about the dangers of fire. My two-year old son has at least one book that explicitly warns him that the flames on the stove will burn, and we make a point of telling that trying to play with the Shabbat candles is not okay. We'll teach him more as he gets older, and he will learn more in school. Honestly, this stuff gets taught so early that I'm not sure I remember learning feels like embedded knowledge. Smokey the bear is still out there giving warnings about forest fires, and every camp counselor I had made a point of making sure that we understood how fires were (and were not) to be placed.

I don't honestly know (or remember) if during this process, children are explicitly told that deliberately starting a fire to try and hurt people is called Arson, and that's bad, but it's a lesson we all clearly learn at some point. Certainly, by the time most children reach middle school, they'll understand that deliberately lighting fires that might hurt or kill people is morally wrong.

Fire Extinguishers and Other Tools

Of course, as a society, we also recognize that sometimes, despite our best efforts, fires happen. Maybe it's an "Act of G-d" that causes our stove to go up in flames. Maybe we have the misfortune of being in a building when someone with evil intentions decides to light it on fire. Whatever the cause, we recognize that sometimes the only thing we can do is either try to get away from the fire, or stop it.

So we do fire drills. We teach people how to get out of burning buildings (relatively) safely, and we make sure that they practice it. We install smoke detectors to give us early warning of a fire, and we keep fire extinguishers in our kitchens, because sometimes, you need to try to fight the fire right away.

And we have highly specialized professionals whose job it is to go tackle the big fires that most of us can't handle.

What the Hell Does This Have To Do With My Blog?

You may be asking "Jake, this is all fascinating, but you are a martial arts coach, not a fire-fighter. What the hell are you rambling on about?"

I started thinking about this (possibly tortured, possibly accurate) analogy after the recent Internet kerfuffle over the recently crowned Miss USA's comments about rape on college campuses. The short version is that she suggested (among other things) that women should be taught how to defend themselves. A number of her critics suggested that her thinking was wrong or backwards, and that instead, efforts should be focused on "teaching men not to rape". Of course, a number of people in the self-defense community were variously appalled and perplexed at the idea that teaching women to defend themselves was a bad thing.

Here's the thing. A lot of people in this conversation seem to be coming at this as though the solution to the problem of rape is entirely binary. Either we educate men better, or we teach women to defend themselves.

Why not both?

Coach Blauer often draws a comparison between learning self-defense and learning to use a fire extinguisher. No one buys a fire extinguisher hoping to use it, nor do we give people fire extinguishers and then tell them that they are all set. But we teach people to use fire extinguishers because we, as a society, understand that sometimes all of our precautions don't work, and fires start anyway.

Why are we approaching rape (or any other act of interpersonal violence) differently? Why do we assume that the solution must either be a)educate men better or b) teach self-defense. Why don't we approach the problem the way we approach the problem of fire?

Should we do a better job of educating our young men about how to conduct themselves? Yes.

Should we take a serious look at the messages our culture gives to young men about women? Yes.

But we should also recognize that sometimes, despite our best efforts, the message isn't going to go through. That sometimes, despite our best efforts, there will be men who still decide to rape. And we should be giving women the tools to deal with that.

It doesn't have to be an either/or equation.


Anonymous said...

Your attempt to be productive is balanced enough that I can't tell if you're more annoyed with one side or another or both in this debate. Good job on that.

I actually like your analogy quite a bit and may use it at some point myself, if you don't mind.

That said, I did some reading and I think I see where some of the criticism of Miss Sanchez's comments are coming from.

The complaint is not that she advocated for women learning self-defense. The complaint is that she advocated it as an answer to a question about why colleges have covered up statistics on sexual assault and what colleges can do to combat sexual assault. She took a question about a societal problem and she responded with a comment about what individuals affected by that problem could do to pretect themselves.

I don't blame her for this at all. She had 30 seconds to respond to a complicated question that she had no particular expertise in or chance to prepare for. It's only natural that she would divert the subject to something she had experience in - her martial arts training.

The problem is that this took place in a societal context where women are very often held accountable for failing to take every possible step to protect themselves while their assailants are excused for a variety of reasons.

In terms of your analogy, her critics might frame the situation like this. Many women are living in a world where the ground is littered with old newspapers and gasoline spills. A significant portion of the population is tossing around lit matches and setting off fireworks with no regard for the fire hazard. When someone suggests "hey, let's clean up this flammable material" they're told "I don't see the problem." When they suggest "let's not set off fireworks next to the old newspapers" they're told "why are you such a killjoy?" But when a woman gets burnt, frequently the response is "have you practiced your fire drills? why didn't you have your fire extinguisher handy?"

In other words, the prevalent message is "there's nothing we can do to prevent fires - just carry your fire extinguisher everywhere."

Getting back to my own viewpoint, I think that it's misguided to pick on Miss Sanchez. If you were to ask me for the causes and solution to a complex societal problem and give me only 30 seconds to come up with an answer, I'd be lucky to say something coherent, let alone precisely on target.

I do think that it is a good idea to have the conversation in general, even though this probably wasn't the best impetus.

(continued on next comment due to character count limit)

Anonymous said...

(continued from previous comment)

I read a blog post by Rory Miller a while ago that seems relevant to the debate. I can't find the url at the moment, but it went roughly like this. Yes, he conceded, a woman has a perfect moral right to put herself in a vulnerable situation without being assaulted. In a perfect moral society, a woman could get falling down drunk around strangers in a dive bar without having to worry about her safety. Unfortunately, the predators who are assault women are sociopaths who don't respect societal standards or a woman's moral rights. Therefore Rory, not wanting women to get hurt, tries to teach them how to avoid these dangerous situations.

This is fine, as far as it goes. I'm all for women (and men) knowing how to avoid unnecessary danger.

What Rory seems to miss is that sexual assault is not just the province of sociopaths and professional criminals. (Perhaps this is a sampling bias due to his profession.) Rapists come from all social classes. They can be friends, family, or neighbors. They can be respected members of the community. In large part this is due to societal influences which encourage and excuse their behavior. If someone claims that these influences don't exist, or that nothing can be done about them, then they become part of the "fire extinguishers only" crowd.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying: I agree. Let's do both. Let's not make this a partisan issue with only one solution.

Erik Kondo said...

1. Since, we are all using fire analogies here, I will add my Violation Triangle to the mix. The Violation Triangle follows the same format as the Fire Triangle.

2. Regarding the question of why not use both methods to solve the problem of college sexual assault, I think it comes down to ideological agenda.

3. Regarding the interpretation of Rory Miller's post, I think it is bad form to paraphrase someone else's post and not provide a direct reference and then explain why the failings of the post.

In such as case, a better solution would be to use a generic term such as "a highly regarded instructor" as opposed to the instructor's name.

Anonymous said...

Erik, here is the url for the Rory Miller blog post I mentioned in my previous comment:

It was from a few years back so it took a little searching to track it down.

Jake said...


Thanks for the feedback. I'm glad you enjoyed it--you're certainly welcome to use the analogy, though Coach Blauer gets credit for the fire extinguisher part of the metaphor, not me.

I understand the source of some of the criticism of Miss Sanchez's answer, though as you point out, she had about a minute to answer a very complicated question (and her critics ignore that her answer was more than just "self-defense").

I think that having the discussion is fine, but many of those involved (on both sides) weren't having a discussion--they were just calling the other side "idiots" (or other names), which doesn't lead anywhere.

Re: Rory's post--I have no idea what Rory is or is not aware of...if he feels like stopping by, he can speak for himself. I will say that I don't think that sociopaths and professional criminals are excluded from being friends, family, or well-respected members of the community. That, in fact, is sometimes the problem.


Interesting pair of articles.

With regard to ideological agendas stopping cooperation--I agree, but I would like to see it change. Or find a way to get the ideologues out of the way. Perhaps that's wishful thinking.