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A Brush With Death
Long thoughts on risk and regulation
Recently at The Bulwark, I wrote about risk, regulation, and responsibility. And grill brushes.
Apparently—I had never heard of this before—a small but very much non-zero number of Americans are injured by wire grill brush bristles every year, which can detach, remain on the grill, and end up in food. They can stab your mouth or throat, or even end up in your gastro-intestinal tract. Not fun.
I saw a warning on Facebook from one of the U.S. government agencies—I don’t recall which one, unfortunately—that suggested using other types of brushes in place of these cheap, ubiquitous, wire brushes. And in the piece, I basically ask: why not just ban them?
But first, here’s some stuff about these injuries, which are very real. Here’s the case of a surgeon who dealt with weeks of abdominal distress before his doctors finally figured out that a metal bristle was stuck in his GI tract. Here’s a surgeon sharing a story about a teen boy who developed an abscess around a bristle lodged in his neck. Here’s Consumer Reports warning about metal wire brushes. Here’s another doctor warning about them. And here’s a medical study of the overall phenomenon.
Nobody is saying you should stop grilling; this isn’t “first they came for my gas stoves…” All the advice is simply swap in a brush that doesn’t shed metal bristles.
As a fellow on Reddit put it, talking about replacing brushes as soon as they show some signs of wear: “Wire brushes average 10 to 20 bucks. Exploratory surgery is north of 10k usd.”
And yet, in the Facebook comments, in between arguments over the risk and likelihood of one of these injuries, somebody wrote something like, “People are so soft these days.”
And that’s why I wrote the piece.
This tendency to speak very conceptually and abstractly about actual, physical risks that can hurt you and cost you a ton of money reminds me of the way some conservatives talked about the pandemic. In a long piece about that, hitting some of the same notes as here, I wrote:
I called this kind of language “abstract.” Maybe an even better word would be “bloodless.” It reminds me a little bit of a quote by the late Justice Anthony Kennedy: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
What would you assume he was referring to, if you had or have no idea of the context of this quote?
He was talking about abortion. And whatever you think about abortion, that’s a rather high-minded way of putting the question. I detect this same bloodless abstraction among the right’s COVID minimizers—ironically, many of whom are loudly pro-life—when I hear talk about risk or spiritual health or the flourishing of the human person. Cries of safetyism and tut-tuts about how life can’t always be safe or warnings that Americans have “embraced fear over fact.” When I hear questions like “what is really the meaning of ‘essential?’”, or when I see masks cast as symbols of the secularist’s fear of death or a worship of physical health. Etc., etc., etc.
These are all laborious, circuitous ways of avoiding the actual questions at hand, questions which are very specific and particular, and which in many cases—almost a million cases, as of this writing—have come down to life and death. They are examples of language crafted not to elucidate but to conceal, not to focus but to distract, and not to sharpen but to blur. It is the sort of writing one produces if he mistakes George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” for a style guide.
So I guess, in Kennedy’s case, it came from the center-left. But it’s the same tendency. So to turn concern over swallowing a metal bristle into a meditation on the softness of modern people or the lack of manliness or whatever is really to say one of two things: one, the risk is being made up, or two, people have a duty to occasionally injure themselves severely just to prove they have character.
You saw exactly these two strains of thinking, usually concealed, in the case of COVID. Sometimes from the same people.
Other than just skewering (or grilling?) this mode of pseudo-intellectual analysis, I also asked a question: why is looking after your health and being risk-averse cast as some kind of weakness or softness, while purchasing insurance policies is seen as being mature and planning for unforeseen events? Why is doing specific things to avoid risk “soft,” but paying someone else hundreds of dollars to hedge against risk “responsible”?
What do you call this phenomenon, in which real-world concerns are transmogrified into sparring matches over ideas and attitudes? Does anybody talk this way about spending hundreds of dollars a month on various insurance policies? More to the point, does anyone consider buying insurance to be an abdication of personal responsibility or evidence of weak character? Why, then, does the comparatively cheap and easy task of swapping out a grill brush—or wearing a mask—spark such a weirdly abstract, cultural, grievance-laden response?
And why is it that many of the people who are cavalier about things like this, or about COVID, the same people who say “Fine, learn the hard way” if you ride the subway?
So there’s all that in this piece.
But I said above that I suggested banning these brushes. Well, sort of. I find it sort of strange that a product which can injure you simply in the course of normal use is sold everywhere. And that the government, doctors, and even a lot of grilling enthusiasts warn against using them. The idea that consumers should just be “free to choose” their own preferred risk level—or that the only principle here is “buyer beware”—doesn’t really make any sense to me.
Why should these “choices” be left to individuals? Why is it virtuous or good or free to force every person to be their own health policy expert, to shame people for buying what’s for sale, to put people in the position of thinking they are okay with risks whose consequences they can barely imagine and cannot reverse?
Is anyone but a daredevil or stunt actor really choosing to embrace the risk of drowning by taking an illegal swim? Is any grillmaster really consenting to the possibility of a perforated intestine or a sharp bristle lodged in their throat when they scrape their grill down? Is any home cook truly just fine with their kid possibly developing asthma because of a gas stove?
Just let people choose? Why is it simply taken as legitimate that the wrong or dangerous choice is on offer in the first place? Why do consumers have a duty to look out for their health and safety, while corporations have no corresponding duty not to bring a dangerous product to market? Why is corporate irresponsibility the state of nature, or even the execution of fiduciary responsibility, while individual irresponsibility is a moral failing?
It’s like arguing that consumers simply have to exercise their free choice in deciding whether or not to buy a car whose gas tank explodes in the event of a regular old collision.
But then, some folks thought that was okay too.
I’ll end with my final point in the piece: comparing all of this to a controversy from the 1950s, over refrigerator doors that latched shut and couldn’t be opened from the inside. Over 100 children are known to have suffocated from being trapped inside of discarded fridges of this design.
Eventually, in 1956, Congress passed a law: the Refrigerator Safety Act, banning the manufacture of refrigerators which could not be opened from the inside. (The run-up to the law included tests to determine how much pressure a kid could exert, to make sure the redesigned doors could really be pushed open by an actual child.) This is why they now use magnets and rubber seals.
But at the time, this redesign was controversial. I can’t find much about it on the internet, but I recall a newspaper clipping or academic paper I came across while working on a paper in college. It quoted or summarized someone in the appliance industry claiming it was impossible to make fridges that would properly seal without latches. I’m sure there were some free-market objections too. And yet, it worked. Most people today would not argue that the Refrigerator Safety Act was government overreach.
But if this were a live issue today, surely somebody would propose that kids these days are just too soft.
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