At times of violence and fear, we search for words to describe what has happened and why it has happened, and what kind of person could be responsible; words to describe victims and perpetrators and motives. The more this discussion becomes politicized, however, the more meaningless and empty these words become; the more open to manipulation and the more useful for justifying actions and overreactions. The word “terrorism” comes to mind, a word that journalist Glenn Greenwald has pointed out is “utterly devoid of objective or consistent meaning.”
Much has been said lately about “homegrown terrorists,” as well as “radicalized” youth, and it is the latter word to which I am taking issue. Both government and media have taken to talking about “radicalization” in discussions about violent extremism. This, however, is a misappropriation of the word, something I find troubling as both someone who works with language and who is political active.
If asked, I’d be comfortable identifying as a radical myself, and would be happy to talk about my own process of radicalization. Many of my friends have also been radicalized. I’m not talking about religious extremism, however. Being a radical is, in fact, a proud political tradition, and a proud democratic tradition. I admire past and current activists, trade unionists, feminists, abolitionists, and the like, who were and are, themselves, radicals.
The word “radical” suggests deep convictions toward political change. It suggests political dissent, and a critical resistance to and suspicion of political traditions and conventions. Radicals believe in the necessity of a fundamental shift in how we view our societies and each other, so that we may live in healthier, more egalitarian communities.
Misappropriating the word “radical” is a means of doing the exact opposite: of not just promoting and prioritizing the status quo, but actively suppressing political dissent. By corrupting and demeaning the word “radical,” we are corrupting and demeaning a proud tradition of progressive—and yes, radical—political change.