Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Instead of fighting fire with fire, doesn’t it make more sense to fight fire with water?

Anger is, for some people, a great motivating force for working toward positive change. For the rest of us, however, staying in our anger is corrosive, making us feel stuck and clouding our ability to think clearly about how we can make a difference. 

There are times in American history when drastic and disruptive measures were effective: Civil Rights era sit-ins, mass boycotts, and the activities of people who fought to create labor laws that protect us from being treated like overused company property instead of as human beings. 

Currently, though, we’re not unified enough as a people for such movements to be able to grow strong enough, fast enough, for rapid results. The fact that individuals who propose such actions have been dismissed as whiny alarmists is evidence of this; what they propose does not sound feasible or sustainable to people who already feel overwhelmed, alienated, and discouraged enough. 

So what can we do? What small, cumulative steps can we take to help gradually make our society unified enough for large-scale revolutionary change when it is needed? 

One thing is to acknowledge our own responsibility as individuals for the undesirable social, political, and religious outcomes we are seeing now. SGI President Daisaku Ikeda cites a Russian proverb about the foolishness of blaming a mirror if we don’t like what we see in it. “One’s happiness or unhappiness is entirely the reflection of the balance of good and bad causes accumulated in one’s life,” Ikeda says; “No one can blame others for his misfortunes.” Society is our mirror, and what we see in it is what we project into it. 

While this doesn’t excuse people who have more of the blame, it does imply that nothing will change if we see ourselves as their victims and expect them to save us by changing their behavior, rather than seeing that we all need to work together for collective change. 

On that note, while I don’t agree with everything comedian Tom Walker says (nor the course language he uses) as his newscaster character Jonathan Pie, he makes some excellent points in his YouTube video about how “liberals” have fed the flames of fear and hate in “conservatives” who have become overtly discriminatory and violent this month. 

He reminds us that no one wants to be labeled as outdated, ignorant, and evil. People who feel they are being treated that way are going to lash out in defense. They feel they’re right, and no one will convince them otherwise by talking down to them and ignoring their fears about no longer being the privileged majority they were raised believing it’s their birthright to be [see explanation of "White Nationalism" here].

Regardless of how erroneous their beliefs actually are, this approach simply never works. 

So what does? We can find out by actually talking with them, as Jonathan Pie points out. Let’s face it: We all have relatives and friends who see things very differently than we do on serious issues. Such people are a great test of our composure, of our ability to not allow such differences to goad us into bringing out our worst. It's so easy to get sucked into what Cindy Dillon calls “right-fighting,” that we forget to prioritize our relationships and reconciliation over our need to be right. 

It also completely ignores the fact that people can always change their minds. What’s more likely to make them change their minds—Treating them as an enemy to defeat, or rational dialogue followed by compassionate action that demonstrates the correctness of our beliefs? 

The idea of “fighting fire with fire” is probably valid in some circumstances that don’t apply here (such as actual fire-fighting, maybe?), and it is unfortunate that it has become a common maxim applied so broadly. If we’re fighting erroneous views or outright injustice—meaning, if the point is to eliminate these problems—then the idea of fighting fire with fire is absurd. When such fire flairs up, fighting it with more fire just makes the fire bigger, right? Fighting fire with fire is simply more of the same. 

So, what puts out fire? 

Water. If we must have a clichĂ© for this, let’s use “fight fire with water.” 

Image: “Elemental Earth” by Karla Joy Huber, 2008; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, metallic gel pen 

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