Reclaiming Radical

When you hear the word “radical”, what kind of images appear in your mind? Many different things perhaps, but it’s probably accompanied by a great deal of apprehension or even fear. It’s no wonder why, since many people today use it as a synonym for, or coupled with, “extreme.” Combining this “extreme” connotation with its usage in political contexts makes for a very scary word indeed. Turning on the news or listening to public discourse, you will regularly hear it used as a pejorative for factions or political actors that are opposed to the talking head you’re watching. “We simply can’t support these radical positions; they’re completely outrageous!” and so on and so forth. Well, I’m here to tell you that “radical” has been treated quite unfairly by our modern discourse and that radical solutions to the many critical problems we face today may not be so “radical” after all.

First off, let’s debunk the linguistic allegations against the word that we have so unfairly heaped upon it. “Radical” does not necessarily mean extreme, nor does it even approach it in its original definition. Its inaccurate association with this concept of unreasonable thinking and partisanship, in fact, says a lot about the state of our political discourse, but more on that later. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word “radical” has its origins in the Latin word radix, and then the Late Latin word radicalis, meaning “root.” Early examples of its usage would mean this quite literally in the sense of trees, but also figuratively in the sense of a “root” origin or foundation of something. This original definition persists into our modern-day lexicon in the fields of science and mathematics; radicals are the roots of numbers and radical leaves grow near the roots of plants. Even in the political and philosophical sphere, where it's perhaps best known today, it was used in a figurative sense to connote the “root of the issue” until the late 1800s. Going into the 20th century, however, a new definition was made of “radical,” which brings us into this modern association with extremism, partisanship, and often, totalitarianism.

Language is a fickle and sometimes contradictory thing, but especially in this modern age with so many conversations going on in our society about the importance of language and the power of words, I believe this is a perfect opportunity to reclaim this word in particular. “But why?” You may ask, when there are so many other words we can use, that wouldn’t be fighting an uphill battle against public perception and stigma. The answer lies, ironically, in a radical assessment of our political discourse and an honest look at the subtle power of language.

It is apparent to most everyone, especially young people and students, that our country and the planet are facing some very large and frightening issues. Climate change, the housing and cost of living crisis, increasing economic inequality, the stability of our health care system in the wake of the pandemic, and an increasingly polarized and divided public, just to name a few. These issues are multi-faceted, and I think it’s suffice to say that none of them have a “silver bullet” solution – addressing these issues will be hard and it will require time and deep radical reflections on our society and the way it functions. Half-baked solutions, ones that dwell on surface level aspects of the issues, will be hamstrung from the beginning. To believe that you can fix complex, foundational problems with appeasing and easy solutions is an exercise in appearances. It appears like you are solving a problem, but the core of that problem is allowed to continue unperturbed. All too often people who propose meaningful solutions, solutions that really dig deep to attempt to address that root cause, will be labelled as “radicals” intended to mean “extremists.” I would argue that attempting to solve problems from the root, ex radix, is anything but extreme; sometimes it is the only thing that can work. 

Therein lies the importance of reclaiming this word, this connotation that those who would propose change and reflection at a fundamental level are bad or unserious is awfully constrictive on our political imagination. The fact that this word is even used as an insult is quite indicative of our general political antagonism to real change as it is. Now of course, not all radical approaches are going to be made equal, and having a radical approach certainly doesn’t preclude you from being genuinely extremist. After all, it's merely a lens – anyone can look through it. 

I consider radicality an important aspect of an honest and vibrant political landscape. Radical approaches to politics are crucial, but often so are the moderating voices that argue against fundamental change being necessary. It is merely that it is vital for our democracy to have discourse and dialogue on the more radical aspects of our society, especially in the face of the radical issues that we face today. For this reason, I don’t shy away from the word radical, in fact, I embrace it.