a place for radicals

This is a difficult article for me to write, because I am not a radical. It is simply not my personality. I’m the kind of guy who argues by saying, “I totally see your point, but have you considered this…?”  I respond to nastiness with politeness, I flirt with people who think that I’m aloof, and I’m the master of the “maybe both of us could learn from each other” approach to debate.

But the thing is, I’m not against radicals. I think that when you look at the big picture, the larger flow of progressive social movements, radicals play an important role. Possibly an indispensable role. I know all of the arguments that moderates usually put up against the radicals that fight for the causes they support: “You will alienate people.” “You will cause a reaction that will set us back.” “You will make us look bad.” The moderates want to “catch more flies with honey” and work within the system to change people’s minds and behaviors.

And to a certain extent, all of those things are true. There are some people who will be alienated by radicals, and radicals in a movement will cause some negative reactions and retaliations. Moreover, I firmly believe that the role of the moderate—the reasoned debater who works to change the system from within—is also indispensable.

But that doesn’t mean that radicals don’t play a necessary and important role in the bigger picture.

Radicals inject energy into a movement. They are the gas pedal of the car. Without the gas pedal, the car doesn’t go anywhere.

Let’s stick with that metaphor for a moment. Some people are the brake pedal. The brake pedal is also important. If the gas pedal were the only pedal you had, the car would get out of control and spin off the road. The car would have no control. But without a gas pedal, the car wouldn’t go anywhere, either. The moderates who criticize all radicals and say that nobody should ever be aggressive, confrontational, and angry… it is like they are making the argument: “The gas pedal is bad, because using the gas pedal too much causes accidents. If you want to avoid accidents, don’t use the gas pedal.” The argument is true: if you don’t use the gas pedal, you definitely won’t crash into anything. But you also get nowhere.

Can you have a successful progressive social movement without radicals? I can imagine it happening. But then again, it’s possible to imagine a lot of things. If you look at history, though, every successful movement has started out with its initial “fuel injection” from the radicals.  The speeches of Malcolm X, sexual liberation and radical feminist protests, the Stonewall riots.  All of these things happened early on in the movements for civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights (respectively). Did they have to happen? Would we be where we are today without those clear-cut moments of action in our history? There is no way to tell. The one thing we do know is that we have at least three clear-cut examples of social movements that have made great strides in our culture, all of which have had an important place for radicals during their evolution. How many examples of successful social movements without radicals can you think of?

There are some social movements that are only in their infancy today. Atheists today, for example, seem to be in a similar position to where blacks and women were in the 1960’s. Politicians would never dare openly claim to be atheists, and will barely even mention an issue in their support. They are a group that is so marginalized that people don’t even realize that the discrimination exists. And, perhaps not coincidentally, there is a small and vocal set of Militant Radical Atheists who only in the last 10 years have come to the attention of popular culture: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris.  Although not physically violent, these are the Malcolm X figures of the New Atheist movement.

And as you would expect, moderate atheists all over are decrying them. Don’t be so rude about religion! Don’t be so extreme! Be more respectful! Change minds through education, not confrontation! And so on. Personally, I’m an atheist who is also a moderate. I like to be respectful. But I’m not sure that we should be telling the Militant Atheists to “shut up.”  I’m not sure that there isn’t also a place for that voice in society.

So this is my message to people who are like me, my fellow moderates:

Don’t despise the angry drag queens. Don’t look down on the black power separatists.  Don’t try to hush up the militant atheists.  They might grate on you, and I know you see danger in them. But just as you (the moderate) play an important role in the bigger picture, so do they. Embrace them.  Sure: temper and counter-balance them when you feel the need.  But don’t cut them out of the picture.  Without their energy, their strength, their nuisance, their anger… the car would never go anywhere.