While I’m employed in the software world, I also do a lot of woodworking as a hobby that I intend to grow into a business. In this hobby, I’ve found that training in the form of video tutorials online has exploded with thousands of (mostly men) making a career out of getting woodworkers to be better at their craft.
If you’ve followed this blog since the beginning you’ll know that I have a sort of antagonistic relationship with “safety”. Safety is obviously less important than many other things to nearly everyone and we can verify this by their actions. It is safer to order everything online, yet people willingly drive to stores just to browse because they value freedom and curiosity more than safety. It is safer to pay a professional to cook your own meals, but people value their money and the acquisition of new skills more than safety.
What do those videos have in common with safety? Well, this morning I watched one of the innumerable woodworking videos on safety. Power tools have a nasty habit of removing body parts when woodworkers aren’t careful, and I think in these cases it is reasonable to use them in the right way at least most of the time. Is this a contradiction with my previous remarks? I don’t think so. If I really valued safety above all else, I wouldn’t use power tools at all. I wouldn’t even use hand tools, since I’ve actually been injured by hand tools and never by power tools. No, in the case of using these tools, I’ve found that using tools as intended gives a dual benefit – the tool is less likely to damage the workpiece and less likely to damage the hand holding it. All with virtually no cost to myself.
As a specific example, using a push block on a table saw rather than my fingers doesn’t cost me any control. It actually makes it easier to push a piece straight. It has the added benefit of keeping my fingers away from the blade in the event the wood is pulled into it, which can happen no matter how careful I am if the piece is warped at all. As I intend to run a business, I find the cost-benefit of using a push block to be 99% on the benefit side and 1% on the cost side, so it’s a reasonable choice. As Mike Rowe puts it, safety is third (or lower) on my list.
However, the reason I bring any of this up isn’t to talk about safety itself, but about masculinity. In the latest video I watched, there was a clip of a bunch of young men daring each other to get their fingers as close to a moving sawblade on a table saw as possible. You could tell by the voices how big of a deal this was for them. The guy putting together the safety video described this all as “stupid” and “beyond his ability to help”, but it was obvious that this clip wasn’t about some guys trying to use a table saw productively. It was about the danger.
Doing dangerous things is an intrinsic part of being a man. It’s masculine to do hard, scary things and to even gain mastery over them. While I wouldn’t recommend doing that by daring to cut one’s own finger off, I can sympathize with the desire for a young man to prove himself to his peers by risking everything (or even just a finger). The clip was obviously a ritual, and a ritual that I instantly recognized. It’s a common ritual. A sort of rite of passage. Go out and hunt the dangerous animal or you’ll never be a real man. Kill it and bring it back, and you’re praised for your masculine virtue.
In our effeminate age, we see these things as merely stupid. Don’t get me wrong, it is stupid to put your finger in front of a table saw blade. But the people doing it know that. It’s not being done because it’s stupid. It’s being done because it’s obviously dangerous. That’s the point. In a dangerous situation, if you have to trust the Safety Expert or the young man who was willing to risk his finger all for the respect of his peers, you’d probably trust the young man.
The author of the safety video probably wasn’t trying to make a point about any of this, and likely just found the clip useful in showing what not to do with your table saw. It’s intended to cut wood and not body parts, after all. But it became immediately obvious to me what was going on and I think that was lost on the author and on most everyone else watching it. It’s wisdom that needs to be recovered.
A few male friends and I used to climb the local water tower at night and walk out across the curved surface toward the edge as far as each of us dared. Nobody ever fell, but it was the same sort of “test”: we were competing against ourselves and against each other, conquering fear. The girls all thought we were insane. It’s not wise, but it’s just a natural part of growing up, I think. And distinctively masculine.
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