Counterproductive radicalism

In the following I want to outline some examples epitomising what I will call a ‘radical’ mindset.

Across American colleges, large-scale protests have been taking place in recent months with the aim of protecting students from potentially wounding or controversial remarks. Asking a Latino American “Where are you from?” is considered a ‘microaggression’, as it could be seen to imply doubt in their American heritage. To combat such microaggressions, students are seeking the implementation of ‘trigger warnings’; alerting consumers to content which may result in a strong emotional response. For example, Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ is said to contain discriminating views towards minorities, and thus professors are required to forewarn their students prior to reading.

Examples can also be found in the feminist movement. In Germany, where professions are usually not given in the neutral, but in the form which has been conventionally associated with that profession (i.e., doctor and lawyer in the masculine form, cleaning aid and nurse in the feminine form) there is substantial opposition forming under the notion of ‘gendering’: the demand to correct this archaic, and ultimately prejudiced, practise by naming both the masculine and feminine forms at all times. As the possibility of expressing oneself without the implication of any gender is often very difficult, if not to say impossible, it has led to demands to always state both masculine and feminine forms. Furthermore, things may quickly get personal with the use of, historically speaking, derogatory terms towards women — ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’ are two common examples. Such words, detestable as they are, have evolved from their original meaning as terms to disrespect women to their current use in a primarily gender-less context. However, the eagerness to ascribe the historical meaning to the use of such words remains: a young woman discontinued a friendship not just with the young man who had used the term, but with the whole feminist-friendly community of which the two were a part. The reason: he would not apologise for negligently saying ‘bitch’ in a context that was hard to mistake as not being meant derogatorily towards her, and women in general.

There are two more examples which I want to include. An individual discontinued their friendship with a middle-aged woman, as the latter’s husband went into early retirement on grounds that were legally sound, but morally questionable: he was, in fact, still able to work. Lastly, a young, politically active individual was speaking about a planned family holiday to Hungary. Due to the current political climate there he did not want to go and potentially be confronted with such nationalist, ‘racist’ political views; instead, he wanted to use the time to spend with like-minded friends at home.

To not be misunderstood from the outset: the following does not seek to refute the righteousness of each individual case. Rather, it will question whether the aforementioned tactics are enabling the desired change.

You may be asking yourself how the patchwork of examples I have given can be fused into a cohesive account. Let me try to make this clear. As can be gleaned from all the examples, there is a shift in focus which takes place in the process of such opposition — the questioning, on moral grounds, by merit of rigid borders encompassing the underlying radical mindset. Kant’s ‘Critique’ is no longer in focus primarily as a dissection of morality, but in an attempt to discern the potential harm it may inflict on students; teachers are less concerned about which topics they should impart on their students, but rather whether the topics they have already chosen will leave them liable to prosecution; feminists are reducing themselves to pedantism in the field of semantics, while sympathisers of the movement are being accused of advocating sexism; and, more and more individuals fail to recognise the opportunities of entering a discourse with those who see the world differently.

Thus the problem with such a radical, uncompromising mindset is twofold. For one, it inadvertently results in a sense of alienation from the topic at hand, and for another, it takes the moral winds out of one’s sails. These problems will hopefully become clear shortly.

I am reminded of a passage in Robert Pirsig’s ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’:

“But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible […] If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory.”

What is at stake is equality: racial, sexual, religious, economic equality, etc. The desire to overcome these, as I am sure the large majority of people will agree with, is the goal. Yet as the discussion shifts from this abstract goal onto the concrete ways in which it can be reached, disagreement begins to crystallise. It is here where some will embody the pragmatist, engaging with contrasting views whilst maintaining clarity in their own ideals, while others will become dogmatic in their dismissal of everything short of their own perceived moral superiority. But such radicalism of the latter dogmatist is not enabling; rather, it disables the desired change. For as all of the examples seek to highlight: the fight is being carried out not on the grounds of rationality, to use Pirsig’s dichotomy, but merely within the walls of certain factories. To be sure, they are battles which can and probably will be won. The factory’s walls are only so resistant to moral pressure, and eventually they will cave: Kant’s ‘Critique’ is already being reprinted with a warning on the first page; the written German language may see the inclusion of not just masculine and feminine, but every gender form; the Hungarian and probably Polish, perhaps even American tourist industry might come to a standstill, if people radically boycott such countries in which the political establishment is moving to the right; and so on. This can be seen as a major victory. Or, as I suggest is the more sustainable way of looking at it: it can be seen as a minor gain, still a long way away from the ultimate victory, because the rationality which gave rise to these factories has in no way been addressed. And what’s worse: so much energy has been invested into tearing down the factory that none is left to oppose the prevailing rationale.

At this point, the dogmatists will seek to defend their radical mindset along the following lines: although they understand the need for pragmatists, it is surely an absolute necessity for both poles to be represented in society. In this way they see their own character legitimised. But this argument is flawed in its very nature of being: one cannot seriously stake a claim to the moral high ground whilst dismissing everyone else who fails to live up to this standard, for individuals doing so are ipso facto themselves guilty of failing to change the status quo; failing to challenge the underlying rationality. It follows that it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to overcome our own aversions, embody the pragmatist, and in so doing engage with the opinions of those with whom we disagree; or by whom we feel wronged; or, through whom we are wounded. To be clear: one may argue that this conclusion is, in itself, radical. And of course those factories impersonating ‘minor’ injustices should also be pulled down. However, it is imperative we hold ourselves primarily accountable to opposing the prevailing rationality which gave rise to these factories in the first place, and our energy should be allocated accordingly. Failing to embody the pragmatist will only disable the desired change from taking place, hence itself morally condemnable. In this sense, my conclusion is less radical than it is realistic, as there is simply no legitimisation for maintaining a primarily uncompromising, radical mindset.