Friday, September 25, 2009


Tibor R. Machan

Nearly everyone has complaints about the way others use words. One of my pet peeves is when people are referred to as "that," as in "the person that wrote this book," instead of "who," as in "the person who wrote this book." Rejecting the distinction between "that" and "who" suggests to me insufficient awareness of what it means to be human and of a willingness to think of persons as objects of some kind, non-human animals, instead of human beings proper. As anyone can gather, this beef of mine rests on certain views I have about the world, views the targets of my complaint appear not to share--such as that human beings are unique enough to deserve to be referred to differently from how other stuff in the world is.

So now I was watching the news recently and the reporters were discussing the several people who have been indicted or are said to be suspects in various terrorist plots. In one report it was mentioned that some suspects in these cases are thought to have been radicalized while in prison. And throughout the report the term "radical" or "radicalize" kept being used as if being indoctrinated into a point of view that can prompt someone to indiscriminately maim and kill hundreds, even thousands of human beings, amounted to being a radical.

In my dictionary a radical is someone who thinks about matters relating to how to conduct oneself and influence public institutions by way of considering the foundations of ethics and politics. Radical is supposed to contrast with conservative because the latter refers to approaches to forging actions and policies by gaining guidance from established, tried and true, traditional ideas. In a certain respect all major scientists are radicals because they think things through thoroughly, from the ground up, all the way from the roots of their discipline. A radical in politics is someone who believes that to find the best approach to problems in the policies of one's community requires one to go to the basics, the fundamentals.

The people to whom the reporters referred as radicals are, in contrast, simply brutal, mindless, dogmatic men and women, quite opposed to thinking things through thoroughly, as radicals are supposed to. So why did they get labeled with this perfectly honorable term?

Perhaps another use of "radical" is in reference to someone who departs completely from the mainstream, who has no respect for any of the ordinary practices civilized individuals would normally consider as they go about planning their conduct and institutions. It is indeed a drastic or radical departure from civilized conduct to kill and maim indiscriminately, with no regard for who has been found guilty by means of due process. That is to say, such people are drastically different in how they act, monsters if you ask me.

But it is too bad that "radical" is used this way. It thus besmirches a very appropriate alternative to dealing with problems, namely, one that goes to the roots, that examines everything very carefully before launching into action. Indeed, the conventional opposition between liberal and conservative fails to capture an important element of the dispute. This is that conservatives recommend a method for dealing with problems, be these private/personal, social, public, or international, that relies heavily on what is learned from traditions, customs, and long established habits of thought. And while, of course, these are very useful shortcuts to what is true and right, they cannot be the best answer since there are so many conflicting traditions, customs, etc. To be able to navigate among these when, as so often, they are in conflict, a firmer source of understanding is required. This, as the Ancient Greeks taught, is human reason which is supposed to be able to help identify, with the aid of experience, what is what, at least as best as possible for the time being. Radicalism is, in turn, reliance on reason.

Conservatives have often scoffed at this reliance. As the most famous conservative thinker, Edmund Burke, put it, "each man's private capital of intelligence is petty; it is only when a man draws upon the bank and capital of the ages, the wisdom of our ancestors, that he can act wisely." Yet, Burke himself uses his own reasoning to arrive at this insight, so it cannot be entirely true even in his own terms.

It would be best, I think, to counsel people to make use of what the past offers but not before they have thought it over and made sure it holds up to reason.

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