Nothing to Kill or Die For

The horrifying events in Charlottesville, Virginia yesterday reminded me of a question I’ve been pondering on and off for months: is there any idea worth killing or dying for?

I can see killing or dying for people. Not people in the abstract, such as those who share my group identity, but people I know and care for. Even then, I can see killing or dying for them only when they are in immediate physical danger, not for the sake of some ideological principle.

I place great value in ideas, as I hope this blog has demonstrated. I especially believe in the ideas of kindness, generosity, nonviolence, and humility. Freedom of speech and conscience are important to me also. But enough to die for?

And the antitheses of those ideas can definitely rile me up. But enough to kill for?

Rabbi Hillel, born a generation before Jesus, is one of the most beloved figures in Jewish history. Asked to teach a non-believer the entire Torah while the non-believer stood on one foot, Hillel chose not to test the man’s resolve with a recitation of begats. Instead he said, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”

You can’t do better than the negative version of the Golden Rule. The positive version — “Do unto others what you would want done unto yourself” — gives you permission to assume you know what’s best for others, and turns the act of forcing your beliefs on them into a virtue rather than (at best) obnoxious imposition or (at worst) oppression, humiliation, and even murder.

So I’m with Hillel. I wouldn’t want to be killed for an idea I believe in. And therefore I wouldn’t kill others for holding beliefs opposed to mine.

You’re welcome to call that cowardice. But from my perspective, the cowards are the people so threatened by contrary ideas that they must hurt and kill those who think differently.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.