The Problem with the House on Fire

There’s a meme going around that purports to have a great response to people who use “All Lives Matter” as a retort to “Black Lives Matter.” It uses the analogy of a house that’s on fire, stating that if the Smiths’ house is on fire, you wouldn’t say ‘All Houses Matter’ and spray water equally at all houses, you’d focus on the house that’s on fire. If the analogy helps some people to understand why the statement “Black Lives Matter” does not imply that other lives do not matter, then it’s doing some good, and that’s wonderful.

But it also misses a major part of the context in which “Black Lives Matter” has become a rallying cry, and invites the response that “you should care about black-on-black violence as much as you do white-on-black violence.” In the fire example, we don’t ask who set the Smiths’ house on fire, or why the Smiths’ house in particular is the one that’s on fire, but maybe we should, because it might change our response and reaction. If someone in the Fire Department had poured gasoline on the Smiths’ house, then the right question isn’t “Which houses matter?” or even “Which houses should we draw attention to?” but rather “Why is the fire department increasing the risk of fire?” and “How did an arsonist get hired by the Fire Department?” Black Lives Matter didn’t gain national prominence as a reaction to overall mortality rates, but specifically emerged in response to the threat of police violence against African-Americans. We empower and employ the officers of the government to keep us safe. When the state performs violence on its own polity, it deserves greater scrutiny than when private citizens commit violent acts, because we have specifically entrusted those entities to reduce the level of violence in society. As a lawyer, part of what I find so horrific about instances of police brutality is that sworn peace officers, who ought to be as or more dedicated than anyone else in the country to the principles of equal enforcement of the law are instead subverting the law for personal interest or for the sake of their own “in-groups.”

So by all means, let’s use the fire metaphor as a jumping-off point if it helps someone to realize that valuing life isn’t a zero-sum game, but let’s not pretend that’s a sufficient or complete depiction of the reasons people are protesting. Trevor Noah eloquently described how deaths at the hands of the police demonstrate that the social contract is not being upheld, and the simplistic example of a house on fire without a single bad actor elides that element.

3 thoughts on “The Problem with the House on Fire

  1. I stumbled upon your post after looking for commentary on the “fire” analogy, which I have problems with as well, but for different reasons from you. What I would therefore like to offer is what I see as, let’s say, “the problems with your problems with the house on fire analogy.”

    1. Black Lives Matter seems to me to be a bit confused regarding its focus. The fact is, while admittedly George Floyd is considered the most significant case here, it is NOT always about violence at the hands of the police. The Ahmaud Arbery situation, of course, does not involve the police. Furthermore, the original, I believe, BLM case was the Treyvon Martin situation, which also did not involve a cop. George Zimmerman may have THOUGHT of himself as a cop, but he clearly was not. So I do think that there is some moving of the goalposts going on here.

    2. Yes, the police are supposed to protect people, but I have a problem with this notion that some people have that they are essentially to the community as the Secret Service is to high-level politicians, who are supposed to actually take bullets for people. They are protectors, but they are also ENFORCERS — that’s why it’s called Law ENFORCEMENT! Roughness is part of their job, which is why they carry guns in the first place. Obviously, here we have a situation in which one went WAY over the line, but many of these cases are much less clear. I think that one can argue that going over the line in an already-tense situation in which one is carrying out his/her job (and, yes, female officers are sometimes involved) is not as bad as totally senseless gang murder, for example. Lastly on this point, by the way, it kind of reminds me of how when Joe Biden earlier this year went to an auto plant and one of the workers said “you work for me,” which Biden did not take kindly to. I agree with Biden here. Yes, in some abstract sense, Biden may work for (or is trying to work for) the auto worker, but in reality he’s an authority figure to the worker, not a subordinate. The point is that I, even as a white person, don’t think of cops (on-duty at least — off-duty is a different story) as my servants or my friends — I understand that if I do the wrong thing, they, quite frankly, have the right to get rough with me in a way that the average person on the street does not.

    3. So, the bottom line is that, as you can tell, I don’t make this huge distinction between police-on-civilian violence and civilian-on-civilian violence, which is why I’m a dissenter on this topic and DO believe that all lives matter, which includes white-on-black, white-on-white, black-on-black, and black-on-white violence. To me, and I’m sure that you don’t think of it this way, essentially saying that violence at the hands of civilians just doesn’t really count as much as violence at the hands of the police DOES, in fact, constitute a devaluation of those lives taken by civilians.

    4. But you clearly disagree, and consider violence at the hands of the police to be inherently worse and therefore much more worthy of “fire” status, I guess you could say. And it’s your right to disagree with me. But it’s also my right to disagree with you and NOT draw that distinction (and whether one form of crime is worse than another most certainly is an opinion). People quote Voltaire as having said “I might not agree with what you have to say but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it.” In fact, Voltaire never said that, but rather a 20th playwright named Evelyn Beatrice Hall. What Voltaire actually DID say, though, was “think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege to do the same” (or something like that — it’s obviously translated from French). CLEARLY BLM (and this generation of liberals in general, I would say) does not have this mindset! And that may be my biggest criticism of the movement.

    • MT,

      Thanks for engaging thoughtfully. I’m not an expert on the BLM movement- I can speak for what I mean when I say things, and how I think about the social contract, but I’m not prepared to generalize what everyone means when they make a statement, or to define a single meaning/mindset for a decentralized group of individuals who have a common slogan; in my own interactions, I have met some people who expect thought-purity in others. I’ve also had the privilege of working with many more who are deeply tolerant of dissent, so long as it’s conducted from a place of good faith and mutual listening, rather than contrarianism and rigidity for its own sake. I suppose I would similarly draw a distinction between people making the statement that All Lives Matter who are actively working to try and improve all lives, versus those who are using it as a knee-jerk retort to avoid thinking about why someone might feel the need to say “Black Lives Matter.”

      I absolutely believe that all lives matter, and that all lives matter equally. I have a somewhat libertarian streak that makes me suspicious of state power, and therefore while I think a death at the hands of the police is neither more nor less tragic than a death at the hands of other citizens, the former raises concerns about systemic overreach that the latter does not. This notion is at the heart of why we require proof beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict someone criminally, while only requiring a preponderance of the evidence in civil court. The state should be neutral between your interests and mine, but when the power of the state is exerted against one of us, the scales are tipped in favor of the citizen.

      We also have the opportunity to train law enforcement differently than we do now. It doesn’t seem like an overreach to me to say that the police ought to accept the risk of not enforcing minor property crimes rather than become judge, jury, and executioner for selling unlicensed cigarettes or passing a forged note. Emphasizing de-escalation and safe restraint techniques could reduce the risk of death at the hands of LEO. That seems worth exploring and investing in as a society. If you want to say we should also find ways to invest in reducing gang violence, or more successfully prosecuting murderers (the unsolved murder rate is appalling to me), I’m there with you,100%, but I don’t think saying “gang members kill people too” is a reason to accept or endorse the status quo.

      I don’t think a democratic society ought to function in terms of subordinates and superiors; we’re all a part of society, and so I agree with the auto worker… so long as that auto worker recognizes that Biden also works for 330 million other people, and so that doesn’t give him (the worker) authority over Biden. It does mean that Biden should consider the auto worker’s interests and opinions as at least equal to his own as a private citizen. Similarly, I don’t think of the police as my personal servants, but I do expect them to serve my community as a whole, not merely a subset of it. And if their job is to maintain order/reduce violence, I expect them to be held accountable if they show a propensity to escalate and make things worse; if my mechanic had a history of misdiagnosing/harming my vehicle, I can go to another mechanic, but I can’t pick a different police force, so I need confidence that those who are bad at their job are sent to find other work.

      As you say, we can agree to disagree, and I’d hope that in a thoughtful democratic society, eventually we get to a place where neither of us gets exactly what we want all the time, but we can live with the things that aren’t how we’d structure them if it were solely up to us. I do think it’s important and healthy for people to have these conversations, though, rather than shutting them down in the name of patriotism (on the right) or sensitivity (on the left).

  2. Jacob,

    And I will thank you for your response to my response as well. I’m not going to get into a long rebuttal here, mostly because I think your points are reasonable but also because, let’s face it, we both probably have better things to do! I mean, the situation isn’t going to change one way or the other based on anything written here, is it?

    What I will say, though, is that, not to “toot my own horn,” but I do like to believe that my “all lives matter,” stance comes from a place or greater analysis and thoughtfulness than many others who use the line, which is also why anyone who tries to use the fire analogy on me might be in for something of a surprise! I think that that came across to you, which I appreciate. I do agree that there are probably some people who say “all lives matter” just to be jerks. But, as you seem to know, that’s not all of us. At any rate, I’m glad that you’re willing to listen to someone taking that position without thinking that the person needs be, uh, “cancelled,” as seems to be the fashionable lingo these days!

    Thanks again for reading and responding. Take care.

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