For many generations the word “radical” has, at least in the United States, been used by many, from many points of view, to mean a person with political beliefs that are both deeply wrong and dangerous. In other words, those who are thought to be wrong and dangerous have often been labeled radicals. The word, moreover, has for some time commonly carried the connotation of “crazy” and “off the deep end.” Finally, the word usually carries with it the ideas of “extreme” and “extremist.” Currently the term is often used next to the words “Islamic” and applied to religiously-inspired militants who claim to act in the name of Islam and who use surprise violence against non-combatants to try to terrorize populations and provoke delegitimizing responses by governments.  

On the other hand, which views are wrong and dangerous? Of course people don’t agree about that! And people also (therefore) disagree about who deserves to be called a radical. Which perhaps points to a question: is the word “radical” at this point of any use at all? Perhaps it now functions as nothing more than a bad name we use to dismiss ideas without first considering them on their merits. And one might also ask this question: are extreme views wrong just because they are extreme? At one point in American history to be opposed to slavery was to be a radical, but these days that very same view (thankfully) is understood as both mainstream and as something that any decent person would agree with. When it is right to be a radical, and in what way?


  • Has anyone ever called you a radical? How did you feel about that? Did it dismay you, or were you proud of it? Why?

  • Have you ever called anyone a radical? What did they say that caused you to label them in that way? Do you think what you said was justified? Why or why not?

  • If the word “radical” was somehow banned from usage - or everyone somehow agreed that it had no meaning, so we should stop using it - would we just make up another word to replace it? In other words, do we need the word? Why or why not?


Phil Neisser

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