(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.

Rules_for_Radicals cover
Lore is absolutely right. Many ideas that were once seen as radical, and not that long ago either, have survived vigorous criticism and the test of time, and are now entirely mainstream. It was once considered radical to see black people as fully human, deserving of all the dignity and liberty and rights as any human. It was once considered radical to think that gay people weren’t morally corrupt or mentally ill, and to see same-sex love and sex and relationships as even remotely acceptable. (In fact, I remember seeing an archival TV interview with a gay activist in the late ’60s or early ’70s, who said that of course gay people weren’t advocating for marriage or adoption rights — that was ridiculous.) Until the 1970s, it was legal in the United States for husbands to rape their wives, and it took until 1993 for marital rape to be a crime in all 50 states. I could come up with a long list of many more examples, right off the top of my head. (Suggestions for others are invited in the comments.)

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.”

radical sign
If you want to get all linguistic about it: The origins of the word “radical” don’t mean “extreme.” The origin of the word means “root.” (Like in math: the radical of a number means the square root, cube root, etc.) Radical feminism (if you get away from the academic definition(s)) means that equal laws and equal pay aren’t enough: the roots of sexism in our culture go deep, and we need to work to change the core of how people think and feel about gender. Radical anti-racism means that legal racial equality isn’t enough: the roots of racism in our culture go deep, and we need to work to change the core of how people think and feel about race, and about people of different races. Radical LGBT activism means that same-sex marriage and employment non-discrimination laws aren’t enough: the roots of homophobia in our culture go deep, and we need to work to change the core of how people think and feel about sex and sexual orientation. Repeat, for other ideas. (And yes, I know that word meanings change. I think my point still stands.)

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.

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Coming Out Atheist
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Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.


13 thoughts on “Radical

  1. 1

    And going farther back — every single one of the so-called “Founding Fathers” that the right is so reverential towards were considered radical back in their day. The idea that we’d be better off without hereditary rulers and titles was practically the definition of radical. Before it got taken over by The Powers That Be and Emperor Constantine, the Christian sect was considered radical for its teaching that the poor had value.

    To be fair, though, I think even the conservatives who use the word in a derogatory fashion don’t actually equate radical with “wrong.” Remember King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail — he saw his biggest enemies as not the vicious racists, but the much larger group of moderates who thought he was right, but premature — rights for blacks would come eventually in their own good time, but he shouldn’t try to rush the process. I think when most people use the term radical, they mean “too far ahead of the curve.”

    But if the practically overnight nationwide flip on gay marriage has taught us anything, it’s that you can never assume the time isn’t ripe yet for change. Now is the only time there is.

  2. 2

    Huh, it never occurred to me that ‘radical’ would be considered a bad word. If you want the world to be radically different than it is now, you’re a radical. Conversely, using it as a bad word is akin to complaining about an idea with “But then things wouldn’t be the same!”

    Most of my politically-minded friends in the UK would be happy to use it about themselves (though it’s one of those things that it’s better to have others call you than to call yourself.)

  3. 3

    Bigotry is hard wired into humanity. Every time someone told me about a place or situation without some form of bigotry I went and had a look, No big surprise, there are places with less of one or more particular forms of bigotry, but there is no society, group, state or nation without some form of bigotry. As with other negative aspect of human nature there is no eliminating it. At best, with a concerted and sustained effort, it can be managed and minimized.

  4. Erp

    I think people in Britain are more aware that there was once an actual political group named Radicals many of whose measures have since passed.

  5. 6

    Wait, “radical” is supposed to be an insult? I learned that the word means wanting to change the fundamental (i.e. “root”) structures of a system – it can only be construed as an insult if one thinks the fundamental structure of the system in question is perfect (and, really, does anyone think that about any system?). I’m flashing back to people calling me a hippie, apparently trying to insult me, and me going, “Well, yeah, of course I’m a hippie… And?” Or a “communist” or a “socialist” – same thing. So, yeah, radicalism isn’t inherently wrong, and being right frequently demands radicalism, becasue a lot of things are fucked up at their very cores.

  6. 7

    Radical feminism (if you get away from the academic definition(s)) means that equal laws and equal pay aren’t enough: the roots of sexism in our culture go deep, and we need to work to change the core of how people think and feel about gender.

    Also, FYI on the use of “radical feminism” in the academy, it means exactly what it plainly appears to mean, more or less the definition you give here: it describes branches of feminism concerned not only with changing superficial structures like laws but with changing the (social, cultural) core of a society. It’s outside the academy that it gets twisted to be conflated entirely with 1970s-era Lesbian Separatist Feminism (which was radical, to be sure, but isn’t even close to the only radical form of feminism) or to mean trans-exclusive feminism (which also frequently carries separatist threads through from the earlier forms of separatist feminism). Various feminist movements or philosophies have self-branded as “Radical Feminism” (clearly trying to position themselves as The One True Radical Feminism – boundary-policing, identity conflict, and power plays crop up in any group/movement), but we’re (usually) careful to use the capital letters to indicate that it’s a proper name for the branch of thought, and not describing radical forms of feminism generally. Our course on the history of prominent feminist philosophies and movements was very clear about this, and that was a required course for my Women’s Studies program. I assume it’s similar elsewhere, as I’ve been mostly impressed with the quality of Women’s Studies/Feminist Studies/Gender Studies at other institutions when I’ve had cause to see parts of them directly or discuss them with people who went through them.

  7. 8

    You know what was really radical?

    Swift’s Modest proposal!* ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Modest_Proposal )

    Well for certain values of those words anyhow.

    The word ‘Radical’ is, from what I gather, as much a compliment as condemntion as well as how its used in surfing and skateboarding circles.

    But yes, absolutely spot on here.

    * Also whoah, those outdated no longer remotely acceptable but then commonplace sexist and racist attitudes sure come across strongly even in this humanitarian satire in the section quoted in wikipedia after the word ‘ paralipsis” dealing with Swift’s real suggestions for the famine! How times and societies have changed – for mostly vastly the better.

  8. 9

    In discussions where someone is trying to use their ‘ally’ status as a shield from criticism, I’ve begun pushing the idea that the goal of any true Progressive/Social Justice advocate should be to ultimately have been a really awful person. The verb tenses there are deliberate–I want society to advance so far that future generations will look back at my (currently radical) views and be horrified at their ‘obviously’ horrible content, much like I view Jefferson’s slaveowning, and the Founders’ general disenfranchisement of women.

  9. 11

    In common usage, a radical idea could simply be a new idea.
    So then, what’s the opposite of that? An old and stale idea?
    So if someone says an idea of mine is radical, should I respond with a non-apology?
    “I’m sorry that not all of my ideas are old and stale, like my critics want.”
    How ridiculous can we make this criticism sound?

  10. 12

    I really don’t think I have ever read anything on this blog that is that radical really. Mostly its stuff like “rape is bad” which everybody agrees with even if most people don’t make the connection between that and “Baby it;’s Cold Outside” being awful etc etc. You are mostly just asking people to take seriously ideas that they already accept. Atheism itself is a little bit radical, but there are really really solid arguments for it that have been developed over hundreds of years. I think radical should be reserved for ideas that really are pretty untested. Ideas like torturing the “bad guys” so we can prevent terrorism or “Let’s invade Iraq!” ideas that really haven’t been subject to serious scrutiny and/or represent a huge departure from the current course. Also there is a giant difference between be radical when what you do is write on a blog and being radical when you have actual power. It can be reasonable to adopt gradualism in public policy because we don’t know what the consequences of the alternatives will be.

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