(Content note: mentions of racism, rape denialism, domestic violence, homophobia. Also some use of mental illness language used as insult in quoted passage.)
I’ve been thinking about the word “radical.”
Lore Sjöberg recently posted this on Facebook (reprinted here with permission, not linked to by his request):
Here’s a thought experiment I’ve been mulling over. Say I was transported back in time to the 1950s. I’m surrounded by a culture that contains all the sexism and racism on display in Mad Men, and more on top of that.
I would be surrounded by repulsive things, ranging from cartoons about buck-toothed “Chinamen,” ads making jokes about smacking the little lady if she gets out of hand, rolled eyes at any implication that a woman could be raped by her husband, and the cultural certainty that gay people are, at best, just plain crazy.
How could I live with this? If I speak up about a tenth of the terrible things I saw, I’ll be seen as a bizarre radical if not an outright loon. Even if I become an activist, I’ll probably be the activist that everyone points at to say “Well, at least I’m not as extreme as HE is!”
(And all of this is not even addressing the question of what it would be like to actually BE a woman, or a person of color, or a gay man in that era.)
All of this is to say that sometimes I feel like I’m already in the Fifties. One of the complaints leveled against feminists, and feminist women in particular, is that they see sexism everywhere and they make a big deal out of things that everyone, even most women, think is just fine.
Well, yeah! There IS sexism everywhere, and a lot of the things that aren’t a big deal today are nonetheless sexist, just like naming a sports team “The Redskins” in 1932 was racist even if it seemed like good fun at the time. I certainly don’t agree with every statement by every progressive activist — that would be impossible anyway, progressives don’t agree on everything — but a lot of times I find myself reading about controversies and thinking “Yep, that’s radical, and it’s extremist, and it’s unreasonable. But it’s also absolutely correct and in another few decades it will be considered common sense.”
I’ve been thinking about this. And I’ve been realizing what an empty, lazy insult it is to call someone, or someone’s ideas, radical.
All these ideas were considered radical — until they weren’t.
In other words: An idea can be radical, and still be right.
In other other words: Insulting an idea (or a person) simply because they’re radical is an empty insult, devoid of any actual critical content. It’s like calling someone a poopyhead. (Unless, of course, the person’s head is actually made of poop.) And rejecting an idea (or a person) simply because you see them as radical is a sign of lazy thinking. In fact, it’s a sign of no thinking. It shows that you haven’t actually given the idea any consideration. It shows that the only consideration you gave the idea was to think, “I haven’t heard that before, it’s unfamiliar and it seems extreme, therefore it’s wrong.”
Of course not every radical idea is right. Yes, I can easily come up with a long list of ideas once considered radical that are now widely accepted — and I could just as easily come up with a long list of ideas once considered radical that, after careful consideration, are now widely considered ridiculous. The point isn’t that “radical” automatically means “right.” The point is that “radical” doesn’t automatically mean “wrong.”
We don’t have to give careful consideration to absolutely every new idea that crosses our path. If we did that, we’d never have time to do anything else. But if we’re going to go to the trouble of criticizing an idea in public, I think we have a responsibility to not reject it simply because it’s radical. I think we have a responsibility to actually consider whether the idea is, you know, right. If we don’t, we risk being the people our descendants look back on and condemn in 20 or 50 or 100 years — the people who perpetuated horrible ideas, and rejected excellent ones, simply because everyone else was doing it, and we were too frightened or lazy to do anything else.