To engage in radical politics is to risk estrangement from the very community which that politics is devoted to serving. Here at Columbia, use of the word "radical" conjures images of wild-eyed liberals acting on whims rather than principles, taking over administrative buildings, and ignoring reason in the face of overwhelming evidence. At best, these caricatures are based on sustained misunderstandings. At worst, they are distortions meant to demonize and alienate those who are labeled as or self-identify as radical.
Although it is often used disparagingly, "radical" should not be understood as a pejorative term, rather, it should be understood as a reference to a rich political tradition rooted in the politics of love and the ethics of compassion. I do not take offense at being called a radical, though those who label me as such may have that intent. In order to achieve a fuller appreciation of radical politics, we must first stop using "radical" as an insult for all those with whom the majority disagrees.
At this point, it is worth defining radical politics and determining what distinguishes it from other political standpoints. This is a particularly difficult task, but there are fundamental philosophical disparities that differentiate radical politics from other political orientations. To begin, it is helpful to know that those who advocate radical politics are interested in getting at the root or the origin of a problem. For example, violence against women is a problem. One who is not committed to radical politics is primarily, and perhaps exclusively, interested in establishing battered women's shelters or telephone helplines for female survivors of masculinist violence. But radical politics teaches us that a telephone helpline, though necessary, does not address the root of the problem. It is merely a response to the problem. A social service, if you will.
The advocate of radical politics understands the value of providing social services, yet broadens her scope to an interrogation of the socio-political climate in which men's violence against women occurs in the first place. She is interested in the factors that produce the problem in hopes of eradicating the problem itself. For example, she may be interested in challenging patriarchy and formulating new, healthier conceptions of masculinity while devoting some—though not all—resources to providing social services to female survivors of male violence. This broadened scope which focuses on the root of a problem is the primary difference distinguishing radical politics from other political standpoints.
Still, the skeptic will remain unconvinced. He will continue to pose critical questions about the extreme political views that radicals seem to hold. Those who pose these questions usually mean "extreme" in the sense of deviating greatly from the political center. Contesting this belief requires a more nuanced argument. First, because radical politics address the root of a problem, its conclusions may appear to be extreme. If the radical grapples with questions of freedom, love, and liberation, then it is quite expected that the nature of the radical stance will have vast implications for our everyday lives. Therefore, the political programs prescribed by radicals may appear extreme when in fact they are properly rooted in targeting the source of a problem.
Second, it is true that self-proclaimed radicals tend to communicate their opinions forcefully and in generalizing terms, giving the appearance of extreme views. Last semester when I wrote in this column about the audacity of white privilege and the different manifestations of white supremacy on our campus, some individuals were offended by my generalizations. I maintain the principled stance that white privilege is a reality, but I did fail to make clear to readers that this privilege is mediated through multiple other identities. For example, a poor white male's white privilege is muted by his economically disadvantaged position as poor, yet intensified still by his socially privileged position as male. White privilege is a negotiable, relational dynamic, not a stagnant position of power. Without this important clarification, many readers felt attacked because they did not feel that the white privilege they possess—if they concede that they possess it at all—impacts their everyday lives in any meaningful way. Thus, my views were deemed extreme based on a generalization I made.
Those who belittle radical politics in favor of a more conservative standpoint must at least be willing to engage radical views in a critically open way without prematurely dismissing them as irrelevant or unreasonable. Likewise, we as self-proclaimed radical thinkers must take pragmatic steps to tailor our message to our audience. Now, this does not mean compromising a principled stance in order to achieve short term goals. Rather, I am suggesting that if our principles are community, love, compassion, and hope, and our goals are to persuade, not to alienate, to achieve justice, not to rabble-rouse, and to live and love more deeply, not to usurp power for ourselves, then it seems that a pragmatic approach to radical politics is a feasible option for achieving them. With this willingness to approach our differences with pragmatic care, we will have moved that much closer to establishing a loving community where differences exist, yet understanding and trust abound.
Anthony Kelley is a Columbia College senior majoring in women's and gender studies. Strength to Love runs alternate Tuesdays.