Radical is a term that is used very loosely in today’s culture as an objective word to describe extremity without explicitly defining extremity itself. Additionally, the denotations have allowed radicalism to be falsely paralleled with extremism. The dictionary definitions of radical are “very different from the usual or traditional”, “favoring extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions”, “associated with political views, practices, and policies of extreme change”, and “advocating extreme measures to retain or restore a political state of affairs.” The problem with the dictionary definitions is the subjectivity behind words like traditional, different, usual, extreme, etc. Additionally, these words depend unequivocally on perspective and time period, things of which are arbitrary and constantly changing.
1. “Radical,” Merriam-Webster (Merriam-Webster), accessed October 4, 2019, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/radical.
To continue, the negative connotation of the word radical creates misconceptions when trying to propose a denotative meaning. This is why when using the word, it is important to take context and perspective into account. It is safe to say that the word “radical” was not always a negative term, and to some remains neutral. Its association with negativity came with time and tragic events that were connected to radicalism. For example, the terrorist attack of 9/11 in the United States was just as often referred to as extreme as it was radical. The terrorists themselves were just as often called extremists as they were radicals in our news outlets, articles, and social media reaching mass amounts of people and distorting the meanings of both words.
Further, Karl Marx, famous for his social theories, wrote in 1843 in his book “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” that “to be radical is to grasp things by the root.” This definition is the firmest of all existing definitions as it relates to the origin of the word. The word radical comes from the Latin word radicalis which literally means “of or relating to a root.” In the English language, it first came to describe the basics or fundamentals of something. Later it progressed to mean something different from usual or to describe a person who was looking to make extreme changes. Further evolving, it found itself to be synonymous with extremism. Angela Davis obviously saw the manipulation of the word and more than a century later tries to reinforce its true meaning saying, “Radical simply means grasping things at the root.”
2. Marx, Karl, Joseph J. OMalley, Annette Jolin, and Karl Marx. Critique of Hegels “Philosophy of Right”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
3. Definition of radical – Merriam-Webster’s Student Dictionary. Accessed October 4, 2019. http://wordcentral.com/cgi-bin/student?radical.
4. Davis, Angela. “Moe Lectureship in Women’s Studies .” Moe Lectureship in Women’s Studies.
Moreover, because extreme change is not widely accepted, especially by conservative institutions, the word radical often tries to make those looking to change societal norms as disruptive, disobedient, instigators, rebellious, etc. Although some radicals may fall under these categories, there is a necessity in their belligerence. An example would be activists in the United States of America, particularly during the Civil Rights Movements. Activists would be labeled as radical, not to mean someone who is working for extreme change, but someone who is disrupting social order and disobeying the American government. This is why “radical is used to describe people like Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and Marcus Garvey, but not people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Those described radical by today’s manipulated definition may have spoken about and acted on the principle of being prepared to use violence. However, these people are not radical for these reasons. They are radical because of their revolutionary voice and ability to fight and bring about extreme change. Those not described radical preached non-violence and made known they would fight institutionalized racism with passive resistance and God on their side, making them less of a threat, thus less likely to be labeled radical. However, by the correct definition, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks were indeed radical in pursuit of the extreme change of racial equality.
Continuing, the brand of radicalism has been strategically used by people in favor of the institutions being challenged to describe activists, black-balling them, and making in nearly impossible for them to pursue any career other than activism itself. Take for instance, a more modern example, Colin Kaepernick. Colin Kaepernick, a former NFL quarterback, started to take a knee during the National Anthem of his football games in protest of police brutality of African-Americans in the United States. He started this very passive form of protest in 2016. Kaepernick’s actions were viewed as “too much” and “extreme.” Soon enough he was titled radical, not for protesting police brutality, but for “protesting America.” His protest against police brutality was disgustingly twisted into a protest against America. His peaceful demonstration became not about the black lives lost due to police brutality and more about a flag and a song. Now, not only was Kaepernick disturbing the Sunday Night Football of millions of Americans, but he was encouraging and leading a hate for America. Less than a year later, he found himself without a job, all because he was too radical. Today in 2019, Kaepernick still has no job in the NFL, but remains a political activist.
Furthermore, Radicalism is not extremism, and radicals are not extremists. Although the word extreme is used multiple times in the dictionary definitions, it carries a different meaning than that of extremism. The dictionary definition of extreme is reaching a high or the highest degree. Extremism is plainly the state of being extreme. Therefore, an extremist is a person who is constantly in a state of extremity which is a dangerous state to be in when involving people. Radicalism is solely based on being able to intellectually reason producing extreme change without being in a constant state of extremity. An extremist is always working from the highest degree and from a sociopathic state of no conscience to also bring about extreme change. Extremists look to violence as a first option and having the highest degree of effectivity. Radicals plan strategically and may encounter, but not cause, violence as a necessary evil.
Additionally, extremism is not radicalism, and extremists are not radical. Yes, they too want to bring about tremendous change, but the methods used are what make them different. Under the category of extremism fall terrorists, dictators, mass murderers, etc., who seem to be fighting for a misinterpreted part of an ideology, making them that much more dangerous because ideologies are nearly impossible to break. An example would be extreme terrorist groups like ISIS and ISIL. Because they are so entrenched in their religion and have misinterpreted their religion, they believe all other religions are wrong, something true followers of Islam would never support. Their short-term goal is to create an Islamic State in their immediate areas, but long term they would like their ideologies to spread across the globe. To achieve this, they will take whatever extreme measures they feel will quicken the steps to their goal. Their terroristic actions that kill thousands and instill fear worldwide is all done in the name of Allah, a being who may or may not exist.
In conclusion, radicalism coming to mean extremism makes it an undesirable and ambiguous term which is difficult to use accurately and objectively. Throughout history it has been used to describe all types of extremes ranging from terrorist like Osama Bin Laden to revolutionary thinkers like Malcolm X. Radicalism is necessary. It is needed for change and it is not an evil mechanism. Additionally, it should not be equated with extremism. Making the two terms synonymous makes it difficult for the upcoming generations of revolutionary thinkers to create change without being viciously labeled with the same word used to inaccurately describe extremists.
Davis, Angela. “Moe Lectureship in Women’s Studies .” Moe Lectureship in Women’s Studies.
Marx, Karl, Joseph J. OMalley, Annette Jolin, and Karl Marx. Critique of Hegels “Philosophy of Right”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Definition of radical – Merriam-Webster’s Student Dictionary. Accessed October 4, 2019.
“Radical,” Merriam-Webster (Merriam-Webster), accessed October 4, 2019,