The Hill You Want to Die On

There are more offensively worded attacks on your character than someone asking you, “Are you sure this is the hill you want to die on?”. By that I mean only that none of the individual words in this sentence is, in itself, offensive. I believe these words put together are either one of the most loathsome of underhanded comments, or one of the most hilarious of sarcastic verbal smack downs.

The only exception: If your Sherpa were to say them just before you started your ascent of Mt. Everest.

What? Too soon? Hundreds of tourists line up on the ridges of Everest each Spring as if it were a ride at Magic Kingdom. It seems every year, climbers die attempting to reach its summit. There’s never going to be a safe window of time to malign people for trampling nature to satisfy their egos, while leaving thousands of pounds of trash, recycling, and human waste behind. Not to mention corpses.

So, if you’re getting uppity with me joking about people dying on Everest, pick another hill.

That was sarcasm.

I used it here only for literary effect. I doubt other people had the same intent when they’ve hurled “the hill you want to die on” question at me. I speculate below about their possible motivations for doing so.

The origin of “the hill you want to die on” question is commonly believed to reference Hamburger Hill, a fortification with little strategic value that was the subject of much controversy after a gruesome 1969 battle during the Vietnam War. There were mass casualties on both sides and the position was abandoned by the U.S. just weeks after it was taken. In essence, the question is meant to present a lesson about choosing your battles and the senseless advancement of selfish ideals, which, if not heeded, could result in your demise.

I’ve heard variations of it as a member of the Board of Directors for The Canadian Association of Stand-up Comedians, (CASC). We’re an advocacy association and one of our initiatives involves lobbying government to recognize stand-up, sketch, and improv comedians as artists.

“I’ve worked all of my life and never asked the government for ‘recognition’. Stop whining….”, is another common response.

I haven’t even completed my thought. The thought being that, amongst other things, formal recognition will open the pathway for comedians to be eligible to apply for arts funding, (which in Canada, we are not).

“If you want money, maybe just try being funnier…”, they also say.

Okay, so auto manufacturers should just make better cars, dairy farmers just milk better cows, the lumber industry just make better timber, the fishing industry just fish better, the oil and gas industry just refine better, and comedy festivals should just produce better festivals. Unlike comedians, all of these industries receive public funding that is described as “welfare” and “entitlement” when requested by artists.

The hill you want to die on

Many people don’t understand (or care) that funding for the arts has proven cultural and economic benefits. A recent study found that a single Canadian comedy television production generated $93.9 million in GDP, created 1,400+ jobs, and for every dollar of government incentives, returned $1.31 in federal tax revenues, (Source: MNP LLP 2018). I’m an artist, not a financial advisor, but I’d say that’s a pretty good ROI.

Still, those who oppose arts funding say it’s a handout, and wonder why comedians should be “subsidized” by the government.

I can’t accurately estimate the number of volunteer hours I’ve put into working on CASC in the past two years. I don’t mind. I hope you have something you’re passionate about that inspires you to lace up your boots and prepare to conquer a mountain.

The hill you want to die on

If you do have something to champion with your time and energy, think about the reasons why someone might choose to criticize the “hill” you’re climbing.

  1. They disrespect your values, believe your actions are inane, and are pushing a polar opposite agenda on behalf of politicians who have promised them cheap beer.


  1. They’re clueless about what you stand for, can’t identify with having anything meaningful in their life to give them purpose, and say (and wear) whatever they want in public because this is what their celebrity role models do.


  1. They feel the same, or could be persuaded to, but really just want to duck out of work early, and instead of collaborating on a scheme to hit a patio somewhere, you’re slogging away at your desk, preparing to march in the streets like a Boy Scout in pursuit of a rare badge.


  1. They fought with you against North Vietnamese forces in 1969 when you were ordered to capture Hamburger Hill, a decision that forced the Nixon administration to proclaim the end of major ground operations in Vietnam.

Reasons #3 and #4 are unlikely, because you’re under 70, and/or your arm is always easily twisted into going patio hopping. As for anyone who’s reasoning is based on #1 or #2, they’re also being outrageously obtuse in assuming that there are not a multitude of other hills you’re climbing at the same time as the one they despise. Some of the other hills may even be ones you share with your character assassin.

One of the other early instances of the use of the “hill” expression was documented in a 1976 article by Carolyn Denham, Can Politicians Trust Evaluators? A Case Study of ECE Evaluation in California. In emotionally defending an Early Childhood Education program, Wilson Riles, the first African American to be elected to statewide office in California, stated, “You can’t choose to die on every hill, but this is one hill I’m willing to die on….”.

It’s true. I can’t choose to die on all of the hills I’m currently climbing. When someone questions the legitimacy of any one of them, I’m suspicious that they’re being either loathsomely disrespectful or frustratingly clueless, but hoping they’re just looking for a drinking partner in crime.

I mean, I guess there’s another possible reason for someone to question my hill-climbing choices. Like a member of my platoon, perhaps they’re genuinely concerned for my safety and survival.

  1. They’re worried that on my way up the “reduce climate change hill”, I’ll trip on my refillable coffee cup, impale myself with my bamboo toothbrush, and suffocate in one of my organic, natural, biodegradable, cotton mesh reusable produce bags.


  1. On my ascent of the “promote social, gender, economic, and racial justice hill”, they fear I’ll develop heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes from repeated stretches of sleep deprivation from years of fostering newborns with the Children’s Aid Society.


  1. They’re anxious that as I’m clambering up the “learn and teach First Aid to help save lives hill”, I’ll get sued by an accident victim for providing care outside of my scope of training, become bankrupt, flee the country, and end up in a substandard foreign prison after being arrested for identify theft.


  1. Climbing the “strengthen the profitability and competitiveness of the Canadian comedy industry hill”, they’re terrified that my fits of laughter will result in asphyxiation from accidentally swallowing stacks of tedious arts grant applications.

When someone asks you, “Are you sure this is the hill you want to die on?”, I hope they just want to go for a pint. But, even if it’s a sinister sentiment, or their unfathomable ignorance, at the very least, they’re tuned into the fact that you have a goal, or cause in which you deeply believe. Consider yourself lucky in that regard; march on soldier.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *