On Being Radical
Toulouse-Lautrec Swimming in the Bassin d’Arcachon, Maurice Guibert, 1896
Like so many words, “radical” means something different to different people. Many meanings are justified by the way it has been used over the years. I’ll distinguish just two.
To some people a “radical” is someone who wants to change everything. This is often juxtaposed to a “conservative,” meaning someone who wants to preserve things as they are. Sometimes the word connotes willingness to use violence to effect the changes. Sometimes those who use the word most negatively imply that the radical cares nothing about the problems caused by the change and even does not care very much what the change is. To the one who wants to keep the situation as it is, a “radical” seems like a bull in a china shop.
I lean toward radicalism in the sense of making changes, because I think that without drastic change humanity will continue the process of making the Earth less and less hospitable to human life. But I am opposed to the use of violence and I care very much about the kinds of change we work for.
Getting to the root of things
A second meaning of “radical” is closer to its original meaning, and in this sense I strive to be as radical as I can. A radical in this sense is one who probes as deeply as possible, who tries to get to the roots of ideas and practices, who seeks the most fundamental explanations.
The most successful radicals of recent times were the feminists. They questioned many things that had been taken for granted, especially the social roles of males and females. It turned out that when people looked at their assumptions about these roles critically, these did not hold up well. As a result, laws and social practices have changed.
Although I favor these changes, I think it important not to assume that the only possible reason for some traditional practices in these areas was the lack of critical examination of assumptions. Some defenders of some aspects of the tradition have also been radical. They have suggested, for instance, that a distinction of gender roles may actually work out better for family life and the raising of children. This is sometimes said simply out of prejudice, but to assume in advance that this is always the case shows a lack of radicalism.
A radical, after all, may point out that the increased number of women in the workforce has allowed wage stagnation and greater exploitation of workers generally. A radical might argue that it was better when one wage earner supported the family and the partner had responsibility for home and children. The increased number of children raised in families in which both parents have jobs may show up in an increase of psychological problems for children and a decline in the willingness of children to be responsible for parents in their old age. The decline of the commitment to life-long marriage may seriously weaken the fabric of society and increase the aloneness of many people. It may turn out that an unexamined individualism has been at play in the social changes we are experiencing and that developing strong communities is as important as individual freedom and equality. It may take a generation or two before we can decide whether and to what extent men, women, and children are benefited by the new culture.
I am not making predictions. I am only saying that the changes championed in the name of exposing the roots of our cultural assumptions may turn out not to have been considered with sufficiently open-minded radicalism. Examination of the roots of some practices may find that they reflect experience and wisdom. There are, after all, sometimes radical reasons for holding on to established patterns. Sometimes the most radical thinking leads to the effort to renew ancient practices long discarded. Today, affirming the wisdom of indigenous people is based on radical reappraisal of what we have called “civilization.”
We can never be radical enough
In this sense of “radical,” I do not think we can be too radical. When we make changes that seem superficially good but turn out to create more serious problems than they solve, we have been insufficiently radical in our thinking.
The changes in our food system effected by GMOs certainly result from radical ideas, but I believe that time will show that the thinking was not nearly radical enough for failing to take into account the organic webs of relationships that are necessary for food production. I believe more radical thinking points to the need for a very different kind of change in agriculture.
The consolidation of small banks into fewer and fewer enormous financial institutions is a very radical change justified by very radical thinking. Similarly, the increase of financial instruments independent of any increase of production certainly shows imaginative and radical ideas at work. But in both cases the ideas are not nearly radical enough. Far more radical thinking would consider how banks and financial institutions can best serve the needs of a thriving biosphere.
Proposed solutions for averting some of the most disastrous effects of climate change are very radical, from changes in energy sources, production, and use to global-scale technology “fixes.” But the contribution of the human population explosion to climate change is a matter that is insufficiently discussed in more liberal communities, as is the matter of meat consumption: a vegan diet would do more to address the problem than getting rid of cars and trucks. Again, more deeply radical ideas than the ones often discussed are needed.
Looking again at big ideas
My conviction is that a very important part of radical thinking is philosophical. That is, we need to examine the worldview or cosmology that underlies our present actions and also supports most of the new proposals emanating from universities and corporations. Without that sort of re-examination, we’ll never go to the root of things sufficiently – that is, we’ll never be as deeply radical as the times demand.
Our present worldview encourages ever increasing use of resources and pollution. It encourages ignoring relationships and focusing on problems in isolation. My conviction is that a much better worldview is available. To consider the possibility of adopting a better worldview requires radical thinking.
Our conference this June, “Seizing an Alternative,” will promote radical thought. I trust it will be much more radical than the kind that has transformed the planet in the past fifty years. In some ways it may call us to turn the clock way back and thus seem reactionary because of its radicalism. It may still not be radical enough. Come and help us insure that it does not fall too far short of what is so urgently, even desperately, needed.