All Lives Matter and the House on Fire Analogy

I recently read a post on social media that was offered as an abuttal to the ‘All Lives Matter’ statement. It used the house on fire analogy, which is basically this: in a street of many houses one house is on fire. All the houses matter but only the one on fire matters right now.

I do not agree with this analogy. The premise it uses is that only one house is on fire and that this house is the one that represents racism towards black people. It seems to me, however, that there are many houses on fire. Houses that represent prejudice towards people who are disabled, of a different religion, gender, sexual orientation, or race, are also burning.

My own experience of prejudice is the result of my being physically disabled. I actually did not know that there was anything different about myself until my mother took me to school for my very first day of attendance. One of the first things that I learnt then was that not all children are the same and I was very different to most of my schoolmates. During the 1960’s and 1970’s I was aware that within the education system children who were physically disabled were also presumed to be mentally impaired as well. Within mainstream schools of the day they were seen as underachievers and marginalised accordingly. This was not the result of a conscious bias on the part of the teachers at the schools I attended; it was, and is, a product of society itself.

Social structures within most civilisations have been built upon defining what is seen as the norm, usually the dominant traits with a given population. Appearance is a common first point of definition. Those who fit the norm, who have the desired body shape, skin, hair, and eye colour, are accepted, those who do not are often marginalised. The disabled have a long history that goes back to the beginning of civilisation in which they are consistently marginalised in this fashion. They have frequently been the victims of active persecution. This social trend continues into the present simply because the prejudice that inspires it also does.

The House on Fire analogy is also discriminatory in that it claims only one of many houses is on fire. It is making a distinction in favour of a single group despite the evidence that other houses occupied by other groups are also on fire.

The Equality Act of 2010 lists eight protected characteristics that have been found to be subject to both prejudice and discriminatory practices, and they are:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Race
  • Religion or belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

All lives matter is an inclusive statement that expresses the egalitarian ideal that all people, irrespective of any other characteristic, should experience an equality of treatment and opportunity within society. This model of social inclusion will only be achieved if prejudice is challenged on a broad front. It is a curious trait of human nature, however, that people who feel themselves to be marginalised often marginalise others. This has been the experience of the disabled, even though their protected characteristic is the only one that can and does include any or most of the other seven.

6 thoughts on “All Lives Matter and the House on Fire Analogy

  1. Not only that but what does BLM mean for Asians, Hispanics and other racial minorities in countries like the USA? I agree with your premise. All forms of discrimination and harassment are bad. I recall growing up in a working class family from Hull thinking nothing of it and then going off to college and even worse, working for companies like BP and Price Waterhouse – may accent was ridiculed, my back ground and schooling was ridiculed, I was told to dress and speak differently if I wanted to succeed and, on the first day of my career at BP (my first job), I met a board member at an event for new joiners – onboarding – who after hearing I went to Aston voiced his utter disgust that ‘we hire from Aston these days, Oh My God! What a disaster’ he told me and the others around me…It was only when I went to Texas that this form of discrimination and harassment stopped. There, they loved my accent and were only interested in what I could do for the firm. Yes, minor I know compared to other forms but it really hurt me and placed a chip on my shoulder that took some time to get rid.

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  2. I agree with you that the “House on fire” analogy doesn’t really work when talking about the Black Lives Matter campaign, or the wider, obvious truth that “All lives matter”. I also agree with you that many other groups currently and historically face prejudice and discrimination. I do think that the disabled community suffer as much if not more hardship than many other minority groups. When you write about the BLM movement, I think I detect an understandable and legitimate fear that in the wake of attention drawn to BLM, the plight of the disabled and other minority groups will be lost and forgotten, again. However, I don’t think the solution is to be hostile to the BLM movement, which is what your writing on this topic sometimes implies. The Black Lives Matter campaign is not denying that all lives matter, rather it is a response to specific events that proved that to some influential and powerful white people, Black Lives Didn’t Matter. Those events attuned people’s minds to the specific problems faced by black people. The simple truth is that not all minority groups face exactly the same problems. While I agree that disabled people and other minority groups deserve more support and attention there has not, as yet, been an “event” to trigger it. Let’s hope it doesn’t require a policeman to kneel on somebody’s neck and suffocate them to death in order to kick start a wider movement. In the meantime, rather than be critical of BLM, I think all other minority groups should fully support it and hope that in doing so they cash in on the zeitgeist of the moment and extend the sentiments of the BLM campaigners to address wider issues as well as the one that got them started.

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    • Thank you for a very considered response. I agree with many of your points. One observation that I do not agree with, however, is that I am hostile to Black Lives Matter. Everything that I have written to date has been in response to criticisms made by supporters of BLM, particularly those aimed at egalitarianism. The burning house analogy was recently used to try and prove that ‘all lives matter is not a thing’, to which I submitted a retort along the lines of the blog-post above. No organisation, nor any individual, is above reproach, no matter how worthy their cause might be. In publicly criticising another person’s opinion you are inviting a response. I do not shy away from this, but it seems that some supporters of BLM get very aggressive to such counter-criticisms, and they are often misinterpreted as hostile attacks when clearly they are not.
      Statistically, disabled people are actually far more likely to be the victims of police brutality or the use of excessive force, https://themighty.com/2020/07/protecting-people-disabilities-police-brutality/, and 1 in 4 disabled people are recorded as experiencing hate crime in the UK alone. The fact is that disabled people have died as the result of the actions of people in authority; it is just that such instances have been either ignored by the media and the public or quickly forgotten.
      Finally, as a disabled person I have always fought to be independent rather than dependent on other people. The idea of disabled people hoping that any benefits achieved by BLM might also fall to them is somewhat patronising, an observation not a personal criticism. There is no evidence that previous civil rights campaigns regarding race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation have ever proved beneficial to the disabled. The reason for this is that not one of these campaigns has been truly inclusive. After 10,000 years of civilisation the disabled remain largely excluded from the main body of society.
      I will continue to use egalitarianism as a basis for my advocacy for better rights and treatment of the disabled and I will defend my beliefs against anyone who raises an opposition to them.

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      • I don’t really disagree with much you have said there. I apologise if something I said sounded patronising, that was not my intention. I agree that idealistically egalitarianism is and should be the starting point for virtually all aspects of social progress and reform for all parts of society. However the practical side of things makes me think we have to connect with whatever streams of consciousness in society are going in the right direction. I don’t see that as a sign of weakness or dependence but rather it is just pragmatic. But even if supporting BLM doesn’t help me, I think it does help them.

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  3. Honestly, my comment about feeling patronising was an observation and not a personal cricitism. It is strange that your comment was in a very similar vein to one posted on another forum that basically said disabled people should just wait and hope that something good comes out of the BLM campaign for them. Perhaps I read the two comments too closely together? Either way, it seems to me that disabled people have spent a very long time just waiting for things to get better and I actually think that things have gotten worse here in England. I sincerely do hope that BLM has a positive impact on racism around the world, I have been supporting civil rights movements since the late seventies, but I also think that they need to understand that other groups do exist and that many of them predate BLM. Such groups have been using words, slogans, and philosophies that they have evolved, which makes them both legitimate and credible. Before criticising in public supporters of one particular group should perhaps learn what other people both have and are doing with their own interest groups first. I know that some extremists do latch onto certain phrases and twist them to their own ends, but perhaps the best way to defeat that action is to reinforce the proper context of such words, not simply condemn them when used out of that context.

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