Bats, Iron Bars, and Bricks
Several readers wrote to complain about a story in last week's issue (26 June 2005):
Weekly Weird News
Another Symptom of the Same Disease
An editorial in the British Medical Journal has a vital, urgent suggestion for the improvement of public health: pointy kitchen knives must be banned to "reduce knife crime." Laws must be passed, the authors say, to require blunt, rounded knife tips because of a recent rise in stabbings. In the U.S., even the most rabid gun-control advocates ridiculed the proposal. "Can sharp stick control be far behind?" sneered a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. But the editorial's authors are serious. They say they polled 10 English chefs and "none gave a reason why the long, pointed knife was essential." (New York Times) ...Insert obligatory joke about the inability of the English to cook.
The complainers will be represented by Gary, who didn't say where he is but I presume he lives in the British Commonwealth:
"At first [the proposal] struck me as funny too, until you think about it a little bit more. If you made it harder for someone to thrust in deep (i.e., make the point blunt), you mitigate the damage they can do that way. The only other way left for them to kill someone then is to use the edge of the knife to slash at them, and unless they know some anatomy, go for one of the major superficial arteries and hit it, or make it difficult for the person to get away and/or fight back, it drops the chance of a successful kill dramatically. And they are right, what the hell is the point of the sharp tip of the knife, when all you use is the edge? Looking forward to your reply."
Well, Gary, maybe all you use is the edge, but plenty of us who cook do use the points. Still, that's not the ...um... point of the story. You still need to think about it a little bit more. Britain has a problem with violence. They banned guns, so now there's a big problem with "knife crime". So the answer is to ban knives? Then Britain will have a problem with "bat crime", or "iron bar crime", or "brick crime". Are they then going to ban bats, iron bars and bricks? The gun lobby likes to say, "Guns don't kill people, people do." But knives don't kill people, nor bats, nor iron bars. The problem isn't weapons, the problem is violence. Unless that's addressed, banning arms -- either firearms or the limbs hanging from your shoulders -- isn't going to fix the problem, is it?
Blaming the knife (or the gun or the stick or the rock) takes the blame from whom it really belongs to: the criminal who assaults others with it. Screaming "Knives are evil!" may sound reasonable, but if you do "think about it a little bit", you'll have to conclude it's not the knife that's a problem. Insisting that it is just perpetuates a lack of responsibility. "It's the knife!" means the true evil is completely ignored: the person wielding it.
It's the same with guns. Guns are illegal in Washington D.C., so it has the lowest violent crime, right? Wrong; it's among the highest in the nation. Florida passed a law saying that barring something that disqualifies them (e.g., a felony conviction), citizens must be issued a permit to carry guns if they ask for one. "Blood will run in the streets!" the scare mongers warned. Did that happen? Nope: violent crime went down there -- dramatically. And the very same thing has happened in every state that has adopted a similar law since. It's convenient to blame guns. But it's also wrong. Blaming knives is the same thing.
Before you write me on this subject, remember: this is not about knives. It's not about guns. It's not about clubs, rocks, spears, or pointy fence posts. It's about violence. Address that, and the knives, guns, and other weapons won't matter.
My tagline on the story ("Insert obligatory joke about the inability of the English to cook.") wasn't overlooked either:
John in England complained: "I resent this comment. As a Brit born just after WWII I will readily concede that our cooking for many years was rightly reviled. But that was then, and this is now, and our reputation has never been higher. It's not something that happened overnight and we still have a sizeable rump of the population which goes for so-called American cooking e.g. the offal that McDonalds and the other fast-food franchises serve up. Stereotypes are unhelpful and jingoistic at the best of times; outdated stereotypes are gratuitous and just plain rude."
Americans don't consider McDonald's "American food", John, so I'm not sure why you do. Still, I'm confused: English food is so wonderfully good that you "still have a sizeable rump of the population" that flocks to eat "offal" instead?
Yeah, that defends the honour of British chefs!
But your main point is that you criticize me for vaguely acknowledging the stereotypical "reputation" that English food has, and you then participate in rather specific stereotype in making your argument. Clue: this is known as "the pot calling the kettle black."
At least one Brit does have a sense of humor (er, humour!)
Belinda in England: "If our knives only have rounded edges, how on earth are we going to pierce the films of our ready meals (the only thing we can cook) before shoving them in the microwave? We'll all starve! Maybe it is a sneaky solution to the obesity epidemic!"
July 15 Update
Readers who have been around for awhile know I like to provoke thought. I will sometimes do that by writing something that I know will challenge a lot of people. That was the case last week: the "challenge" had to do with the reaction to a story about kitchen knives used as weapons, and the resulting proposal to ban pointy kitchen knives (yes, really). The challenging part: in addition to knives, I also talked about guns.
As expected, I got a bunch of mail from people who completely missed the point, ranting at me about how guns are a problem. And of course a bunch of mail from others praising me for being so right. But my favorite letter was from John in South Africa, who showed he actually grasped what I was doing:
"I do understand that your point is not specifically pro/anti-gun matters -- and has everything to do with cutting through the stupidity, striving for the truth of the situation. There have been rare times when I have not entirely agreed with some of your comments, but I see that you consistently strive to switch on the lights and cut through the darkness of human stupidity. For this I salute you. Don't stop."
Barbara in Alberta, Canada, even gets the higher-level purpose:
"I find the complaints of readers almost as humourous as the This is True stories themselves. I would think that the entire POINT of This is True is to point out the absurdities of life and insane behaviours of those we wish to believe are lesser examples of our species. We would all be very busy if we spent our time pouring over the daily news and firing off letters of complaint for every remark that caused the slightest offence. I enjoy This is True because it highlights the ridiculous. Your tongue-in-cheek, sometimes sarcastic asides provide the added chuckle at the end. Yes, at times I have thought 'Hmmmm... that is a bit harsh.' However, if I didn't appreciate your style of humour, I would not continue to read it."
Correct: the bottom line in my running letters of complaint is: they're entertaining.
Only a couple of hundred people unsubscribed in protest, though -- far fewer than in some of the past controversies.
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