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You Cannot Kill an Idea

"A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on. Ideas have endurance without death."

What is the most resilient parasite? An idea. A single idea from the human mind can build cities, rewrite all the rules, and transform the world. Neither armies, nor dictators, nor even mortality have power over them; people die, but their ideas do not.

In fiction, we get heroes dying but hope passed onto the audience by knowing that somehow his idea has lived on. Sometimes the hero is a martyr and his death is a beginning as people use it for inspiration; they are throwing off some kind of mind-breaking torture attempt to show that the forces of fascism can't control them. A book of philosophy or some diary may have survived him, or one of his inner circle may tell his tale and so the story ends on a happy note, but not too happy. Our story is sad but the tide of inevitable revolution will come.

The Trope Namer is American civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who stated that "you can kill a man, but you can't kill an idea." He was later shot dead by a Klansman, but the civil rights movement endured.

Super Trope of Can't Stop the Signal. The characters who pass on the idea are likely Doomed Moral Victors. Likely to inspire an Innocent Bystander to make a Defiant Stone Throw.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime 
  • In One Piece, both Gold Roger and Dr Hiruluk died embracing this ideal. Gold Roger manages to start the Golden Age of Piracy.
    • In the face of a Marine Victory which could have snuffed out the Golden Age of Piracy, Whitebeard, with his last breath, proclaims Roger's treasure does exist, thus reigniting the idea once more. The Marines were not happy with this.
    • The villains of the Fishman Island arc attempt to invoke this, hoping to have their grudge against humans carry to the next generation by killing as many people as they can (humans and Fishman alike) when it looks like they're not going to win. As it turns out, you can kill an idea, if you do it with a contrary one. Luffy's human (though we use that loosely) crew fighting to protect Fishman Island causes that idea to blow up in their faces.
  • Happens in Code Geass. Lelouch's ideals were to fight against injustice and tyranny caused largely by the Britannian Empire. Later, he causes changes in the empire itself, and in the end helps make the world a better place for almost everyone, at the cost of his life and reputation, while passing on the torch of Zero to Suzaku.
    • Earlier in the second season, Lelouch pulls off a Crowning Moment of Awesome by exploiting this trope. When cutting a deal with the Britannians, they want to know if he's the original and he gets them to agree that it doesn't matter, because anyone who wears the costume and espouses the beliefs is "Zero". Then when the Britannians announce that they're formally exiling Zero from Japan, a million of his supporters put on Zero costumes, meaning the Britannians are forced to exile all of them, giving him a million-strong army.
  • After the formation of the team Dai Gurren in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Kamina dies in middle of the battle against every prediction. During the rest of the series he is remembered constantly as a role model for the main cast, specially Simon. To the point than the new futuristic city is called Kamina City.

    Comic Books 
  • V for Vendetta: The anarchist title character, to Eric Finch, who's just shot him:
    "Did you think to kill me? There's no flesh or blood within this cloak to kill. There's only an idea. Ideas are bulletproof."
  • In 300, Xerxes angrily declares that once he defeats the Spartans, he will completely destroy them and wipe out any trace of them from history. Leonidas coolly responds:
    "The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant, that few stood against many and, before this battle is over, that even a god-king can bleed." (The ironic part is that, if Xerxes had followed through on his promised plans, the world wouldn't know of the Spartans last stand)
  • Bruce Wayne isn't the only one whose taken on the role of Batman. Many incarnations of the character support the theme of Batman being more of an idea than a single person (especially The Dark Knight Saga).

    Film 
  • Bruce Wayne uses this sort of reasoning when devising his future role in Batman Begins, as advised by Henri Ducard. A man acting just by himself as a man can be killed, bribed or discouraged, but by becoming a 'symbol' the man becomes "more than just a man"; even if he dies, the symbol lives on to inspire others. Guess what symbol Bruce eventually settles on... And it's heavily implied that Ra's Al Ghul has operated by the same principle.
    • It plays out again in The Dark Knight Rises. Bruce Wayne fakes Batman's death and retires from superhero-ing, but he leaves the keys to the Bat Cave with detective John Blake, so Blake can be the hero that Gotham needs.
  • In Casablanca, Victor Lazslo tries to assert this about La Résistance against the Nazis. The film itself does a good job of illustrating the concept. Unfortunately Those Wacky Nazis also have ideas, and ones that Lazlo is kinda, you know, trying to kill.
  • Played with in Dogma where Rufus comments that "ideas" are malleable and can change and possibly even die out. "Beliefs," which are strengthened ideas, are much harder to even change, let alone kill. It also places a spin on it in that the fact that a belief is hard to 'kill' is not necessarily a good thing if the belief is not a good one, or if the belief has become an overly rigid dogma.
  • Inception addresses this and emphasizes why it is so hard to plant one. The title refers the act of doing so, but the main obstacle is that the subject has to believe it's their own idea for it to stick. The next complication is that the idea will grow to define their entirely life... even to suicidal extremes.
  • V for Vendetta had an epic one near the end. After taking dozens of bullets and killing a dozen men before they could finish reloading (as per his Badass Boast), V approaches The Dragon-in-Chief, who asks, in disbelief, "Why Won't You Die?!" His response? "Beneath this mask is more than flesh; beneath this mask there is an idea, Mister Creedy — and ideas. Are. Bulletproof." The literal bullet proof vest helped, if only for a while; he died shortly thereafter to his wounds.
  • Braveheart: "FREEEEDOOOOOOMMM!"'
  • The Matrix features this trope quite heavily. The idea that the human mind cannot truly function without a real choice plays into the design of the Matrix itself and the cycle of the One as a means for the machines to keep the human population under control. The entire trilogy revolves around breaking this control for true freedom.
  • Equilibrium: "A heavy cost. I pay it gladly." Partridge refuses to give in to Preston, deconstructing the meaning of a system without emotion. Being aware that he has just committed a sense offence, he faces death in the most composed way possible as a form of his defiance, because he'd rather die for his beliefs than be committed to a corrupted establishment. Fair to say, his words continue to reverberate as Preston unravels the truth and the Resistance gain a chance to seep through.
  • Iron Man 1 uses a villainous version. It's one thing if you want your idea to spread and inspire people, but what if you want to keep your idea - like, say, the key to Powered Armor - to yourself to avoid it being abused?
    Stane: You think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you?
  • Iron Man 2 confirms this. Iron Man's existence made the whole world realize that Powered Armor is a viable and powerful weapon. Tony initially downplays the problem because he's one of the only people who can actually make a reliable suit. Unfortunately, the villain of the movie is also smart enough to make his own suit, and he's got a grudge against Tony.
  • The Bad Future in X-Men: Days of Future Past is set off by Mystique killing Trask, since he was the head of the Sentinel program. Killing him only convinced others to continue his work, and the future happened. When it comes down to it, the aesop is that you cannot kill an idea, but must discredit it.
    • The inverse occurs when she spared him; he gets arrested for trying to sell military secrets to the North Vietnam faction at the Paris Peace Accord, causing the program to be shelved.

    Literature 
  • Subverted in 1984, in an inversion of the inspirational "the hero lives on" type of endings: Winston is allowed to live long enough to be forced to admit that he really does love Big Brother before being killed, so the audience knows that in no way were the ideas of The Party overcome.

    More disturbingly, the entire concept of New Speak is meant to defy this trope, by systematically eradicating even the words that could express ideas such as liberty, rebellion, or individuality, which run counter to the ideological orthodoxy of the Party.
  • Played for Laughs in Discworld novels on several occasions, frequently with people using rumors that once they get started can not be stopped. In Interesting Times, for instance, Rincewind goes around telling soldiers that in no way are there any invisible vampire ghosts about to attack them in the following battle and there are absolutely not 2,300,009 of them.
    • Of course Discworld takes it literally many times. Witches Abroad introduces the idea that on the Discworld, stories have not only memetic influence, but are a law of nature. In Soul Music and Moving Pictures, the immortal idea (rock music and movies, respectively) is the Big Bad.
    • In Thief of Time the Glass Clock, which destroyed all of history in the past, was removed from any books by the History Monks, but something that strong still seeped through and found its way into children's stories.
  • Belisarius Series: Used first seriously and then humorously. Belisarius starts a rumor about sexual prowess and general horniness of the Kushans in order to get Kungas and his men pulled away from their guard duty of a captured princess. Their incompetent replacements are easily dispatched and allow her to be rescued. Later, once the confused Kushans find out about the origin of the rumor, they then take delight in spreading it themselves.
  • The Dresden Files novella Backup goes into a bit of detail about The Oblivion War, a war waged, essentially, against ideas. Specifically, the memory of some unpleasant old gods who can't do anything if humans remain blissfully unaware of their existence. We don't get a lot of information, but since the antagonist is a cultist of said gods, and Thomas (the novella protagonist) mentioned the war has been ongoing for thousands of years, it fits.
    • Actually, the Oblivion war could be a subversion, because it's implied that the Venatori actually have killed ideas over the course of the conflict. As well as putting others on life support.
  • In the Eighth Doctor Adventures, a group of Time Lords (the Celestis) take this concept literally, and convert themselves into ideas for this very reason. Unfortunately for them, a later book reveals that the Whoniverse also contains creatures which can kill — and eat — ideas.
  • This is the crux of Kelsier's Thanatos Gambit in Mistborn. He purports himself as a figure of legend and a symbol of evolution, so that when he is killed, a vengeful religion rises up immediately to complete his work in his name.
  • In Fatherland (rephrased): "Cut a clearing in the forest of your mind, the trees are just waiting to reoccupy it."
  • In It Can't Happen Here, the totalitarian government never completely stamps out people's longing for freedom and dignity. Revolts erupt across America as people take back areas from Haik's forces. Doremus in particular exemplifies this trope, continuing the struggle after having lost loved ones, endured torture and incarceration, and lived in lonely exile.
    And still Doremus goes on in the red sunrise, for a Doremus Jessup can never die.
  • Averted in The Stormlight Archive, where humans can, and have, killed thousands of ideas. In fact, the bodies of dead ideas are probably the single most valuable commodity in that world.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Babylon 5, at the climax of the Vorlon-Shadow War Delenn and Sheridan point out that, even if they and their coalition are killed, their assertion that the younger races no longer need the First Ones is true. All the First Ones can do is subjugate them, not "teach" them as the two sides insist they want to.
  • Doctor Who: The Doctor was able to destroy a prime minister with this trope. He only needed to say six words to an aide. "Don't you think she looks tired?" He doesn't die (quite the opposite, really), and the PM isn't necessarily evil, but he does use the principle of an idea being unkillable.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Rightful Heir": Chancellor Gowron talks about the symbolic effect of the return of the Klingon God Emperor.
    "Kahless has been dead for a thousand years; but the idea of Kahless is still alive. Have you ever fought an idea, Picard? It has no weapon to destroy, no body to kill."
    • Later in the episode, the same argument is used to convince Gowron to let Kahless be a figurehead Emperor rather than oppose him. When Kahless counters that this Kahless is a clone, Worf points out that it won't matter to a good number of Klingons, who will still see it as reincarnation, and would only result in fracturing the Empire. Gowron is forced to, reluctantly, kneel before Kahless (even though Gowron is still in charge).
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Far Beyond The Stars". Benjamin Sisko, dreaming that he's a science fiction writer in the 50s, reacts rather badly to having his story pulped because it has a black Captain.
    "You can deny me all you want but you can't deny Ben Sisko – He exists! That future, that space station, all those people – they exist in here! In my mind. I created it. And everyone of you knew it, you read it. It's here. Do you hear what I'm telling you? You can pulp a story but you cannot destroy an idea, don't you understand, that's ancient knowledge, you cannot destroy an idea. That future – I created it, and it's real! Don't you understand? It is real. I created it. And it's real! It's real!"
  • In the Sherlock episode, The Reichenbach Fall, Donovan and Anderson manage to sow the seeds of doubt regarding Sherlock's authenticity as a (relatively) aboveboard detective. When Lestrade comes to warn Sherlock of his impending arrest:
    Sherlock: After all, you can't kill an idea, can you? Not once it's made a home... (Taps Lestrade's forehead) There.
    • That's the whole point of the episode, with Moriarty managing to convince everybody that Sherlock is a fraud and that even "Moriarty" is a paid actor hired by Sherlock. He proves it by killing himself, forcing Sherlock to jump from a rooftop lest all his friends die.
    • This is then reversed in the next series which shows that given enough time, cooler heads were able to re-examine the subject and found major faults in the original theory. Once discredited, the idea quickly dies off and when Sherlock is revealed to be still alive, the pubic embraces him once again as a hero.
  • On The Daily Show, Mo Rocca suggested that to adequately fight the War on Terror, what America needs is "a bomb that destroys ideas".

    Music 
  • Peter Gabriel invokes this trope in the song "Biko", a tribute to South African martyr Steven Biko, with following lyric:
    "You can put out a candle, but you can't put out a fire,
    Once the flames begin to catch, the wind will blow it higher."
  • The point of the song "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night", as recorded by Paul Robeson, Joan Baez and others.

    Video Games 
  • In Assassins Creed II, one of the Codex pages reveals that Altaïr mused on this subject more than once, noting that the Templars waged war by seeking to win over the hearts and minds of people with ideas, rather than more conventional weapons. This made it rather difficult for the Assassins to fight back... But it also makes it rather difficult for the Templars to exterminate them.
    Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad ...how does one wage war against a concept? It is the perfect weapon. It lacks a physical form yet can alter the world around us in numerous, often violent ways. You cannot kill a creed. Even if you kill all of its adherents, destroy all of its writings – these are a reprieve at best. Some one, some day, will rediscover it. Reinvent it. I believe that even we, the Assassins, have simply re-discovered an Order that predates the Old Man himself...
    • Taken Up to Eleven in Assassins Creed III by Haytham Kenway when fighting Connor; while the Assassins are literally born of lifetimes of discipline and self-study, the Templars grow like weeds no matter what the Assassins do because Evil Is Easy and Evil Pays Better. The Templars are even more resilient than the Assassins because they're not even an idea - they're the absence of one.
    Even when your kind appears to triumph, still, we rise again. And, do you know why? It is because the Order is born of a realization. We require no creed! No indoctrination by desperate old men. All we need is that the world be as it is. And this is why the Templars will never be destroyed!
  • Invoked in Deus Ex when the terrorist leader says 'You can't fight ideas with bullets'.
    • "A single artist, a single general, a single hero or a single villain may all die, but it is impossible to kill a people, a nation, an idea — except when that idea has grown weak and is overpowered by one that is stronger." —The Doctrine of the Mighty
  • In MadWorld, XIII says that he wants to see an idea die. A culture. A religion. Any idea. He got his wish. The Blood Sport Deathwatch is dead.
  • Knights of the Old Republic: This is one of Kreia's favorite tropes. She points out that killing men is easier than killing belief and that Revan, in the process of fighting the Mandalorians, adopted Mandalorian tactics and their intolerance for the "weak." She also points out that every time the Jedi and Sith fight each other to near-extinction, the ideals of either side still remain as strong as ever, waiting for their chance to strike back in revenge and dooming the galaxy to endless warfare.
    • Subverted with Kreia herself. Not being the most social woman, her worldview ultimately died with her, since the only person she bothered teaching it to didn't share it (plus she had a nasty habit of killing those to whom she preached). No other character in the Star Wars universe ever expresses the same view on the Force ever again.
  • Tactics Ogre:
    Sisteena: If you want to kill me, go ahead. I may die but my ideals will live on!
  • The Victoria Games by Paradox Interactive, spanning from the early 19th century (specifically, 1836) to right before World War II has this in the game-play where your population will get silly ideas such as minimum wages and universal suffrage on their minds. Starting revolts if the pressure of having enough people saying they want it isn't enough.
    • Victoria 2 adds a suppression mechanic to stop ideas you find dangerous. However, it is a temporary reprieve - the suppressed movement will most likely show up again after a few years and be more radical and inclined to violence.
  • In Metal Gear Solid 2 the main bad guys The Patriots invoke this trope to justify why they will always exist. They (through their AI programmed to talk to Raiden) explain to Raiden that they are the very moral and intellectual consciousness of the United States of America, every idea that comes into the collective consciousness of each American citizen originates from them. You can't kill the Patriots as an organization because they aren't simply a business that can be shut down but an idea in and of itself.
  • In Mass Effect 3 the Illusive Man cites this trope as the reason Cerberus will never fall, even with their headquarters in ruins and their forces scattered.
  • Invoked in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim by Ulfric Stormcloak. Partially subverted if you complete the Imperial Legion questline, as while there would still be holdouts, most would eventually lay down their arms and return to their homes eventually.

    Webcomics 
  • Remus Shepard had a go at this in Indefensible Positions, then deconstructed it in Genocide Man. In the former ideas are actually living creatures known as demons, but are dependent on belief from humans to survive. However the protagonist of the latter argues that an idea can be killed, and that some ideas ''should'' be killed—even if the only way to do so is to slaughter every single person who holds the idea.

    Web Original 
  • Invoked in the Global Guardians character Amnesty, an enormously powerful superhero who regularly opposes dictatorships and oppression world-round and is known for doing things like destroying entire armies in order to save refugees caught in a war zone. She's been "killed" any number of times by the people she opposes, but keeps popping back up fresh as a daisy because she is the Anthropomorphic Personification of Hope, Kindness, Mercy, and Compassion and no matter how dark the world gets, you can't kill hope!
    • Unfortunately, the same can be said for the Blood Red King, Amnesty's fiercest rival and the most feared villain in the Global Guardians universe: he is the Anthropomorphic Personification of Terror, Despair, and Man's Inhumanity to Man... something that has proven just as impossible to kill as hope.

    Western Animation 
  • Subverted in Futurama: "You can crush me but you can't crush my spirit!" *crushed by giant claw* "Ow! My spirit!"

    Real Life 
  • The whole basis for The Game.
    • You just lost The Game.
  • Che Guevara's last words, according to at least one biography:
    I know you have come to kill. Kill me if you wish, coward, but know that you can only kill a man.
  • There were several sects of early Christians that are only known about by official church writings condemning them. In some cases we only have the names and there must have been others where even that hasn't survived. Of course since we don't know what their ideas were it is impossible to say whether those ideas were killed, absorbed by the Catholic Church or recycled by better known groups.
  • Josef Stalin had a go:
    Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?
  • Government propaganda targeted at an enemy intentionally invokes this trope, especially during wartime.
  • Opponents of the War On Terror and War On Drugs invoke this trope as one of their points. We shall not go any further.
  • Generally, outside attempts to forcibly repress or destroy an idea are doomed to fail, but ideas can destroy themselves if they inspire widespread revulsion and their practitioners are doing horrible things.
  • A legal punishment in ancient Rome was damnatio memoriae, which was an attempt to erase a political figure completely from history after his or her death. Their faces would be removed from portraits, statues damaged, and anything mentioning their name would be destroyed or erased. This is extremely difficult to pull off completely - for instance, we have some surviving busts of Publius Septimius Geta, denarii featuring his image, and a wealth of information about his personality, tastes, family politics and eventual assassination - and obviously it's impossible to know if a complete damnatio memoriae ever occurred.
  • A saying from the Norse Poetic Edda, attributed to Odin:
    Cattle die, kinsmen die, we ourselves also die; but the fair fame never dies of him who has earned it.
  • A similar saying is utilized in the Occupy protests, by the slogan "You cannot evict an idea". Possibly a subversion, given that Occupy got stuck with the reputation of being a bunch of rich kids trying to convince the poor they were one and the same, a case of an idea eating itself; haven't heard much about Occupy lately, have we?
  • 2012 Presidential Candidate Ron Paul has stated this about his ideas:
    "Ideas spread, you can't stop them. An idea whose time has come cannot be stopped by any army or any government!"
  • Black Panther Fred Hampton once said that "You can kill the revolutionary, but you can't kill the revolution."
  • Sometimes not Truth in Television. Examples of lost ideas like Roman cement, Greek fire, ancient stoneworking, literacy, etc. can be lost if everyone who has that idea is dead or they can't get the materials or not enough people can get together to operate the machinery, etc. On the other hand, while the specific recipes for Roman Cement and Greek Fire were lost, the idea of cement and fire weapons survived until the world re-invented the concepts (modern cement and Napalm); sometimes, even when the original form of the idea disappears from history forever, it will be re-invented later on. There has even a specific type of red glass, typically used in stained glass, that has been lost and rediscovered three times through history.
  • Plato was a pioneer of this trope. His philosophizing posited 'forms' existing independently of the real world, i.e. every chair may look different, but we recognize them as 'a chair' because they all reflect form of the eternal chair. Hence, mankind will never forget how to make chairs because the idea exists separately from any one man. Things like 'justice', 'virtue', and 'goodness' were also forms. In his 'Republic', the leaders communed with 'the Form of the Good' and embodied it completely.
    • Two and a half millennia later, Carl Jung would adopt Plato's ideas for his theory of "archetypes", that every person is hardwired with mythological symbols that manifest in their myths and religions, while another Carl - Sagan - would savage Plato for the rise of religious dogma, by championing the supremacy of the mind over the science of the 'corrupt' natural world.

    Other 
  • This trope is one of the main reasons why many people (often Sci-Fi writers) claim that going back in time to kill Hitler wouldn't work, as once his sick idea was planted in the minds of the Nazis once he was killed, someone (perhaps even crazier than he was) would have continued on his work.

X Meets YPt/Índice de TraduçãoTropes of Legend
Wretched HiveCivil Unrest TropesCan't Stop The Signal
Written by the WinnersPolitics TropesYour Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters

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