(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.
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. [Read more…]