Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Radical!!! (a.k.a. Extremist!!!) - Part 1

This is looking to become a 5-part series. Links will be added as the posts become available. Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5

   This is a post that pains me a bit to write. Being insulted can be disappointing as it is, but when that insult is out of ignorance, it adds another level of disappointment. It has to do with being called a radical. It is typically meant as an insult, but the most disappointing part is that people don't seem to fully understand what the word means.

   So, let's first start by learning the definition of the word. In typical usage, the word "radical" means "One who advocates fundamental or revolutionary changes in current practices, conditions, or institutions."

   Now that you have the definition, please ask yourself...

What's so bad about being a radical?

   I suspect it's the part about change. Let's face it, most people will show content with the status quo. The status quo brings with it predictability. When things stay the same, you know tomorrow (that's a metaphor for the future, not the literal tomorrow) will be pretty much the same as today. You know how to prepare for tomorrow, because you've already done so numerous times already. Change, however, can be challenging. When you don't know what tomorrow will bring, how do you prepare for tomorrow? The other part about change is that advocating for change takes work. So, even if people are not truly content with the status quo, changing it is decided to not be worth the effort for many. Then, if you are such a person, what might you do to prevent becoming involved in groups that advocate for change? I suggest that the solution many people take is to demonize those groups. Declare them insane and you don't have to get involved. After all, you don't want to be labeled insane yourself, do you? It would seem the word "radical" has had it's meaning twisted for such purposes.

   On a side note, here's a good one that reveals that people want change, but fear getting involved: "I agree with most of your objectives, but you just go too far for me." Doesn't that actually seem like a good reason to get involved with the group and then use your influence in the group to scale things back to your level of comfort?

Examples of radical behavior

   Take a look at that definition for the word "radical" again. Notice any other words that start with an "r" that appear interesting? I'm talking about the word "revolutionary." In fact, the word "revolutionary" is really just a synonym of the word "radical." But isn't being a revolutionary usually viewed in a positive light? (Or have most Americans forgotten what the Fourth of July holiday is about?) How, then, did being a radical become such a negative? Once again, I suggest that it is due to twisting the meaning of the word to diminish social movements that has caused the distinction.

   Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism has an excelent post on what he calls the "golden mean." His post is more directed toward the media for often seeking the middle ground on issues, but it's much about the extremists (radicals) being ignored, including those American Revolutionaries, which is also applicable to the general public.
When Great Britain's colonies in the New World were struggling with the oppression of a distant, dictatorial ruler and a burdensome tax scheme, who was right - the dangerous, zealous extremists who argued that the colonists should rebel completely against King George and create a completely new republic, or the sober, responsible moderates who felt that we should reconcile with the king, accept his divine authority and just ask him nicely to treat us better?1
"Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not YET sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favour; a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom."

—Thomas Paine, Common Sense, an influential 1776 pamphlet arguing that the American colonies should declare independence
When slavery divided the United States and the country was burning on the brink of civil war, who was right - the wild-eyed abolitionist fanatics who thought that slavery should be ended completely and all slaves should be set free, or the cool-headed, wise statesmen who felt that the best compromise was to ensure an equal number of free states and states that permitted the slavery of human beings?
"I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD."

—William Lloyd Garrison, inaugural editorial in the anti-slavery journal The Liberator, 1 January 1831
When Jim Crow laws and de jure segregation divided American citizens into two classes of people, and people of African descent were fighting for liberty, who was right - the irrational, hysterical partisans like Martin Luther King Jr. who felt that acts of civil disobedience would startle the nation out of its apathy, or the sober, responsible religious leaders who felt that breaking the law, even if done peacefully, was an extreme and irresponsible course of action that would reflect poorly on the entire movement?
"But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.' Was not Amos an extremist for justice: 'Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.' Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: 'I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.' Was not Martin Luther an extremist: 'Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.' And John Bunyan: 'I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.' And Abraham Lincoln: 'This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.' And Thomas Jefferson: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...' So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremist for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?"

—Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963
I think he could have tried to find quotes from some other radicals, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony, but hopefully you now have an idea of the wicked thoughts of extremists!

Let's be real about being radical

   That last statement was sarcastic, if you couldn't tell. The point is that there isn't anything automatically bad about being a radical. In fact, we have a holiday celebrating the birthday and life of the radical Martin Luther King Jr. With that, I think the last part of his quote is the important question to be asked about radicals/extremists: "Will we be extremist for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?"

   Now, some of you who are reading to this may object to the idea that Martin Luther King Jr, Susan B. Anthony, etc. were radicals. Well, they wouldn't be from today's standards. That's because they were successful in changing the status quo. They shifted the ideas of society to where their radical ideas became the norm. So when I say that these people were radicals, you must put their ideas in the context of the time in which they lived, not in today's world.

   And now to the reason why I write this post: I have been called a radical/extremist as of late. I suppose it's true. Go ahead and call me a radical/extremist if you mean it sincerely. But all the people I've heard call me that don't. They are out instead to either degrade me or to mock me. When you look at history, radicals have almost, if not, always been an important part of progress. Do some radicals work against progress? Sure, but to automatically discount someone for being a radical is ignorant of history at best.

Shooting yourself in the foot.

   I have a friend who posted on Facebook the following:
If you don't like something, the only real difference you can make is to take action. You can complain until you're blue in the face & it's only gonna make you feel better for a moment. If you're too meek & submissive or too lazy to fight anything, you have but two other choices: Either sit & stew in your own puke or submit to everything & convince yourself that it's for your own good. Most people end up doing the latter.
That struck a (metaphorical) nerve with me. It struck the same nerve that pains me in writting this post. It is the same nerve that has been bothering me in conversations with my father as of late. He is a man who has complained about politics and occasionally religion for as long as I have known him. I used to think that he was a man who would advocate for change if he had better opportunities presented to him (as well as fewer responsibilities with the farm). But now that I'm all grown up and out advocating for change by being outspoken and supporting groups that promote change? I'm "just as radical as the fundamentalist [Christians]." It turns out my father is a "sit & stew in your own puke" type of person. And, as I spoke about earlier, he has also turned out to be one of those people who doesn't want things to change. *Sigh*

   There was another nerve that was struck with that friend's post. The weekend after this post, I got to know the girlfriend of a friend a bit better. So let me first add the disclaimer that I do not know this woman that well, so maybe I'm just getting a bad impression from what little was said. Continuing, she said a couple things, when paired together, don't necessarily go together. The topic got to be about Planned Parenthood/abortion/birth control, in which she was very stern in a statement that "there is nothing wrong with birth control!" but then said something about there being "extremists on both sides," with the implication being that she is not one of those extremists. That puzzled me. Not the part that there are "extremists on both sides," but rather what does she think the extremists on the one side think? I'm quite sure I listen to those extremists and could perhaps be considered one myself, and I can tell you that "there is nothing wrong with birth control!" is very much like something you will here the extremists say2. So where does she differ from the extremists? And here I'll go back to my disclaimer because I honestly do not know her well enough to determine that. (Extremists also advocate for the usage of birth control. Is she against that? Or is it the mandate that insurance cover birth control?) Still, I had the feeling that she at least has some extremist views, but doesn't want to see herself as one of them.

2 People from my generation who read this may think I'm out of my mind for suggesting that the opinion that nothing is wrong with birth control is a radical position. Guess what? You were raised in a society that had been changed by (guess who?) radicals of the feminist movement. Older generations still alive today may have a different opinion on the matter. (In general, that is. There are bound to be members of that generation that are fine with the use of birth control. And perhaps even more who are hypocritical about its use.) This is a living example of a shift in the status quo.

Besides demonizing...

   One last note I'd like to make is that there may be another reason to degrade people who are extremists, besides the resistance to change previously discussed. There is also the possibility that people do it to boost their own ego. (Or, at the very least, they take advantage of the degrading of extremists.) They do it to feel better about themselves by making themselves appear to be more rational by making others look irrational.. I had a feeling that is what the woman mentioned in the last section was trying to do. Again, refer to the disclaimer.

   That's all for part 1. In part 2, I'll address how there is no such thing as a "radical atheist," at least not in the way often implied. Stay tuned.

1 On a very interesting note, there are some signatures in that olive branch petition you might be surprised to see. Apparently, some of those people changed their opinions in a year's span. Or maybe they signed because the Continental Congress had voted for it?

Supplimentary: Here are some blog posts that have popped up recently that have some similar ideas to mine.
1. Stephanie Zvan on radical feminism
2. Greg Laden on Occupy Wallstreet protestor who might be dismissing the groups that started the protests in the first place (esp. the left-wing nut jobs)! (Unfortunately, we can't know for sure the woman's intent based on the sign alone.)
3. More from Stephanie Zvan. This is relavent in that it discusses how movements are often ruined by those in the middle, not the extremists.

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