In Defense of Radicalism

Stacey Day

The OED defines the word “radical” as characterized by independence of or departure from what is usual or traditional; progressive, unorthodox or innovative in outlook, conception, design, etc.”

The etymological root of this word is in the Latin radix, -icis, f. third declension — for all y’all Latin readers out there — meaning both literally “root,” but also “base” or “foundation.”

This is what I want to defend this week: fundamental innovation, absolute individuality of perspective, opinion without compromise or concession.

When did radicalism become a dirty word? When did individuality and fortitude of vision become somehow a crime against the collective? Perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps — especially within and in the wake of the Occupy movement — radicalism has been revived as something to be proud of, and not spurned for.

Then again, seeing how the media discusses the Occupy movement with such labels as “extremists,” The Baltimore Sun, and “wild-eyed radicals,” The Washington Post, it becomes unclear whether the idea of radicalism has become a laughingstock, a dangerous threat, or both in the American mindset.

What is wrong with radicalism? In Freshman Studies, we are taught that the more opinions that we can have in play in the classroom leads to a richer learning environment, more nuanced and thoughtful discussions and more considered conclusions.

Radicalism outside our cozy little intellectual playground of the classroom is somehow a socially unacceptable thing, although I hate to join the chorus of those who already decry Lawrence’s lack of diversity in opinions. Who remembers the excellent talk by Tom Zoellner ’91, whom Amnesty brought in two years ago, about this issue?

Even the activist groups on campus can seem somehow timid or stifled by considerations about causing offense. Lawrentian editorials either have the campus rioting or else go unnoticed. Left wing politics are assumed generally among the student body. Where are the anarchists raging against paternalistic big government?

Much of the fear of causing disagreement or controversy springs, I think, from the myth of compromise and the “golden mean” as a life philosophy.

Since a young age, we have been taught to share and share alike, and when we fight with our siblings and friends, to compromise to find a solution. If your brother wants chocolate cake and you want strawberry, then you can both compromise on vanilla.

Likewise, moderation is worshipped as a guiding principle as far back in the roots of our western culture as Aristotle, in his proposal of the “Golden Mean.” Neither too much nor too little of any given thing, be it wine and debauchery, or vitamin C supplements and chaste living will lead us ultimately to happiness.

I reject this thesis. If one person wants to build a boat and the other wants to build an airplane, compromise will bring a monstrosity with wings and sails that neither flies nor floats. If good and evil compromise, we have only half a good left.

I believe in extremes, I believe in radicalism.

I want to experience every extreme. I want my thought to be so breathtakingly unique in its strange quirks and contortions of thought that no one can dare accuse me of being a crowd pleaser. I want the root and core of my being to push upwards and produce a fruit no one has ever known

I want my fellow Lawrentians to also be radical, to enrich my life with their uniqueness. Bring on controversy; bring on difference; bring on anything except peaceful status quo and contented moderation.