Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Is an Idea worth dying for?

Dedicated to John Lennon, with love

John Lennon Imagine
I remember watching a documentary on John Lennon about his bed-in publicity stunt for the growth of peace and hair. His intention was to promote peace by simply staying in bed with his wife Yoko at his side. One of the moments that stuck with me was a phone call he received from student demonstrators asking for his opinion and advice. It was during a very sensitive era of continuous social upheavals where unarmed students were being dispersed by armed police.

The student leader wanted to know what to do next, and Lennon, to my surprise, simply told them to go back home, to refrain from getting into altercations, and to leave the battleground, so to speak. At first, I was disappointed with his response.

The rebel and social activist in me wanted them to stand up for their human rights, to face the police - perhaps even the National Guard and the military - with their activist heads held up high so that they could get their point across, both nationally and internationally, and then take credit for an indelible mark in history. Of course, it is easier said than done, but since it was a time of revolution and since John himself had sung about it previously, I was wondering why he told them to run and hide like wimpy kids.

Nowadays, my view on the matter has changed. Nothing is more precious and valuable than human life, and, in a sense, nothing is worth dying for. I guess you can call me an “anti-martyr.” In fact, I consider myself more of a humanist and give this part of me priority over the opposing idealistic strains. No religion, no nation, or even social cause is worth its salt in the end. In times of war, I would prefer to stay home and watch the events on TV and would rather not engage in them actively, publicly, or personally.

Although I may be accused of cowardice, and rightfully so, I would like to reiterate a point I made elsewhere on this blog. What good would I be for my loved ones six feet under the ground? Sure, they could all conceive of me as a hero, be proud of my actions and the memory of me will shine bright like a shooting star, but in the end, I won't be there.

I am not denying the existence of a soul, but even so, I will not be able to hug my loved ones, feel the weight of their kiss on my cheeks since the spiritual world is as light and fluffy as it comes. A spiritual entity cannot be there physically, and although it would be better than nothing, it still does not beat and pales in comparison to being alive and kicking. Put differently, if there are people you really care about in the world, do not lay down your life, do not sacrifice yourself for any cause whatsoever.

To build upon this idea, I would like to point out the most basic and essential of all human rights, the right to life. I am, as you may guess by now, against the death penalty, the taking of a person's life. I do understand the reasons for wanting or wishing to extinguish the life of an unrepentant and cruel monster, a sadistic and relentless killer, but I believe that underneath all those disgusting and nauseating layers, there is sacred human life.

So to return to the answer to the question above, the title of this post, my answer can be construed as a clear and definite no, namely that it is not worth dying for (or over) ideas. But life, the world and particularly morality, not to mention my own mind, all abhor absolute statements, so I am going to rephrase it here.

If your idea, your cause, falls into the realm of politics, I would still side on a “negative” answer. My example: the most extreme forms of political change, revolutions. Many people have been driven and swept by the need for dramatic change and have been ready to sacrifice their lives for it.

What most of them never find out is that these high and lofty ideals often dissolve, or in fact, turn to their icy polar opposites once achieved, like the cursed touch of Midas. A case in point would be the French Revolution that eventually and undeniably brought with it positive change, but it initially got mired in a bloodbath unseen and unheard of in which noble heads kept falling and rolling. And what happened next? It was all followed by a dictatorship par excellence by the imposing, at least mentally definitely not physically speaking, figure of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Second case in point, the October Revolution by the Bolsheviks, with nobility the head target again; they had ideals that theoretically looked and sounded good, but which devastated and stagnated the country and society over the various decades to come. Any of the passionate fighters for social justice who lay down their lives for that cause must have been turning in their graves.

Incidentally, the Iranian Revolution, closer in time, freed the people from the bloody hands of a regal tyrant while handing them over to even bloodier and more blood-thirsty hands of fundamentalists who used the banner of religion. My point is that because of the volatile nature of politics, one should strive for change, but not risk one's life over it. Put differently, John's advice is reverberating here.

As to religion, I am a bit more torn. One thing I am sure of though, I completely disagree with any kind of killing in the name of God, yes, that includes the Crusades and the (not so holy) Spanish Inquisition, where religion, and with it, God's name, was used as a pretext and political statement for power and domination. Yet at the same time, where religion becomes an expression of personal freedom (another essential human right), where truth and integrity are combined with peaceful measures and purposes, I might slightly hesitate.

On the topic of religion, I cannot but admire the steadfast and courageous conviction of Jesus Christ. He stood up strongly and uncompromisingly for what he believed in; his death, although not entirely inevitable, was the culmination of a statement of peace that was at open war with the establishment of the times. Socrates equally embraced death; instead of reversing and backing away from his ideas, he held fast to his notions of truth and personal integrity and drank the bitter cup of hemlock.

In a similar vein, I consider John Lennon. He stood up for his ideals of peace and truth. He was expressive of them in a world full of lies and deception. He may have had his personal failings, and he may be guilty of poking the establishment a little bit too aggressively at times, but overall he did not wish to do anybody any harm.

His death took him away from us and made him an immortal legend. It gave him a singular place in the hearts of humanity to come, a firm place up along the stars in heaven. If it had been possible, we would have much preferred to have him here with us, celebrate his birthday in the land of the living, as his absence, even after all those years and across various generations, still pains us.

But in this case, like Socrates, Jesus, or Gandhi, we have someone who eventually sacrificed his own life for an ideal that establishes and redefines the common good, a death that we wished would not have occurred in the first place, but is, nonetheless, a statement on the affairs of the world, its blindness, its bigotry, and its insanity.


Unknown said...

Loved this blog piece! Thank you for sharing. I'm planning my English I/Humanities lesson introducing my students to The Trial of Socrates. One of the essential questions is "Is any idea worth dying for?" I Googled the question and your blog came up! How perfect. We will read this in our Humanities class. Thank you!

Arash Farzaneh said...

Thank you, Pia for the kind words, and I'd love to hear what your students think about it!

I also have a more recent blog entry on the death of Socrates under "Sacrificial Deaths" that might be of interest too. http://arashworld.blogspot.ca/2014/04/sacrificial-deaths.html

Thanks so much for visiting and commenting, and hope you have a great class!


Unknown said...

Great!! Here's a transcript of the outcome. Keep in mind I teach 8th graders English I and Humanities, so they are at the ripe old age of 13 or 14.
Some of their comments are thought provoking, but some others aren't really. :)

Arash Farzaneh said...

Thanks so much for sharing this! There was some quite interesting and insightful material here, especially considering the age group. I particularly liked the following remark:

"most things in this world are temporary but to end your life is permanent"

Kim Robin said...

I just posted on Facebook prior to reading your blog:

Ideas may be weak, may be powerful, yet they are ghosts flickering within neurons. Life is larger. I have many ideas, only one life in this elusive moment. Why then do we place such value on these sparks of light that men & women die for them? I have heard it said that some ideas are worth dying for. Would you sacrifice your child? What then should we think of you?

The second to last line may bring Abraham & Isaac to mind.
I think as an elder we should react to the Biblical story as troubling rather than reverential.

Arash Farzaneh said...

Thank you so much, Kim, for sharing your thoughts (and Facebook post) here! You are absolutely right, ideas are merely ideas and not the real thing and certainly not life. If only people could see past strife, religion, color, country, nationality and instead see life as it is! That is a dream of mine.

You mention Abraham and perhaps you might be interested in a post on Kierkegaard and faith I posted quite some time ago:


I would love to know your thoughts on it! Thanks again!