When I was a kid, a handful of English language expressions baffled me. I distinctly remember, for instance, a second grade classmate using the phrase “That’ll be the day” in school. The entire class seemed to burst out laughing while I looked around confused. Maybe it was because my parents were immigrants, and we didn’t tend to use a lot of English slang and idioms in our house. But who knows.
One expression which I still don’t get is “Fight fire with fire”. I understand how and why people use it, of course. It’s to suggest that sometimes it’s best to resist a particular force with the same kind of force. But why fire? I always knew, for instance, that water put out fire, not more fire. One of my favorite books as a little boy was Mr Strong, in which the hero douses a panicked farmer’s burning crops with a barn full of river water, earning him a bounty of fresh eggs (it’s kind of a weird book). In any case, you can imagine that as a kid, when even little things lead to puzzlement and provoke curiosity, this was a major dilemma. I was reminded of this recently when I once again came across Abdu’l-Baha’s oft-quoted passage about resisting the temptation to meet anger and aggression with more of the same. In a talk in Paris in October 1912, he said (my emphasis added):
I charge you all that each one of you concentrate all the thoughts of your heart on love and unity. When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love. Thoughts of war bring destruction to all harmony, well-being, restfulness and content…
If you desire with all your heart, friendship with every race on earth, your thought, spiritual and positive, will spread; it will become the desire of others, growing stronger and stronger, until it reaches the minds of all men.
In other words, Abdu’l-Baha’s injunction was the very antithesis of “fight fire with fire”. It was very much “fight fire with water”. Negativity, aggression, hostility, suspicion, conflict — these things can never be extinguished with equal and opposite force. The conflagration only seems to flail from side to side, only to violently spread in new directions.
I bring this up only because I sense this approach — simply put, to overwhelm hatred with love — is increasingly coming to be seen as quaint and passe. It wasn’t always like that; think of the best-known songs of the 1960s, for instance, for a sense of how that generation approached the great conflicts of the day. The Youngbloods’ iconic Get together, still popping up on the radio today, is just one example. It starts:
Love is but a song to sing
Fear’s the way we die
You can make the mountains ring
Or make the angels cry
Though the bird is on the wing
And you may not know why
Come on people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another
Is there anywhere in pop culture where this sentiment is currently being echoed? Are there any prominent political or social leaders championing that approach? Today, our public problems are seen through the lens of one party’s triumph over another, doubling-down on futile, tail-chasing political conflict. Our national debate on race is laced with anger, as if centuries-old prejudice can be wiped away with the right amount of outrage. Issues of international security are boiled down to how best to destroy violent fanaticism with violent explosions.
Fighting fire with fire has never made sense. And it never will.