Shortly before the recent US presidential election, amidst an incoming flurry of political calls, emails, and text messages, I received a text from a progressive organization I’ve been following for years.
“By voting in this election,” it said, “we can send the radical right to its rightful place: the ash heap of history.”
I closed the text and sat quietly for a moment, thinking. What end does that serve?
The night before the election, I texted a friend of mine on the far right of the political spectrum. “No matter who wins,” I typed with my thumbs, “I pray we won’t fall into violence, and that we’ll treat one another with respect.”
His answer: “No matter who wins, I pray the radical left will take control over their minions who are rioting and hellbent on destroying our country.”
In a country where peaceful demonstrators for racial justice have been labeled “radical leftists,” and law abiding pro-police advocates dismissed as the “radical right,” we would be visionary if we ask after the origin of the word “radical,” discern where our current use of the word is leading us, and decide whether we want to continue using it in this way.
The core definition of “radical” follows, from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
– of, relating to, or proceeding from a root; growing from the base of a stem
If we consider the roots of plants as a metaphor for our polarized political climate, we might visualize the following: two different-yet-vital plants unfurling their flowering tendrils combatively toward one another, roots wildly rippling toward opposite horizons in unbound ideology.
But this is not how plants work, and this is not how life works either.
A plant cannot survive with roots exposed to the open air, however furiously it may fight.
A plant survives by sending its roots down and in. It pierces and plunges its energies deep into the earth (wild darkness of the living earth), extracting its nourishment and protection from the soil.
A true, living root reaches for the center. The center of the earth.
We could take a cue from our plant brethren, and dig our roots deep, lest we dry up and die.
Instead we cry “socialist” and “racist,” and any word to dehumanize one another, convinced that if we could only remove our opponent from the game, our precious way of life could be saved.
But that is not going to happen. No side is ever going to “win.”
For like the dancing polarities of yin/yang, the political right and left are not opposing forces, but comingling halves of a whole. We contain each other, support each other, and illuminate each other’s truths.
There is no light without dark, and there is no right without the left. This is universal law.
Gravity. Seasonality. Cycles of life and death. Fallow times and fertile times. Brightest light. Darkest night. Clay and sand.
All of it is needed.
We need other people, people who are different from us. We need the push and pull of opposition to evolve. Other people—and their opposing views—are gifts of self-realization, soul-opening portals into the full experience of being human.
Coursing beyond the obvious association with plant anatomy, the definition of “radical” also includes the following:
– of, or relating to the origin: fundamental
In our culture we call someone a fundamentalist when they hold to their ideology so strongly that they become unwilling to entertain any other belief system as having merit. Such people may grasp their version of truth so tightly that it becomes the only truth that exists, or at least, the only one that matters.
It’s clear how the term “radical” has become commonplace to describe people who hold strongly to the edges of their parties’ ideologies as fundamental truth.
But these words are not innocuous descriptors in our discourse; they are loaded guns.
When political leaders use the term “radical” as a means of othering, we must see that for what it is: weaponization of language.
When we succumb such othering ourselves, we must realize that by labeling someone a radical we dehumanize not only them, but our own selves, in the process. By separating other people from their humanity, we lose the connection to our own.
When we fall into calling someone a “radical” for holding fast to their beliefs—a belief that is different than ours—it may also be a sign that we are holding onto our own beliefs too tightly.
Either way, we fall into the trap of powerful interests that benefit from us hating one another. If we allow our perceptions to be programmed by divisive labels, our thoughts run the danger of appropriation by factions on both sides who would use them to divide and conquer us.
And I don’t know about you, but I refuse to be programmed to hate.
That is why my vision is a future without a radical right…or a radical left.
My vision is to live into a new definition of “radical,” based upon another meaning that is already part of our lexicon, just a few lines down in the Merriam Webster list:
– favoring extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions
A radical, in this definition, is a person who is dissatisfied with the way things are, and willing to work far outside the box to change it.
If we choose, we could see our so-called opponents as radicals like us: rooted in our convictions, deeply pained by our current state of affairs, and ready and willing to fight for something better.
According to this definition, we are on the same side.
To be clear, there are people in our society being “radicalized” to become hateful and violent. But using “radical” as a derogatory label for those with diverging opinions from ours does not lessen the potential for dangerous radicalization. It heightens it.
And of course, there are many things worth fighting for. But if we spend our energies fighting one another as enemies, we’ll have precious little left for fighting to heal our collective wounds.
I didn’t respond to either of those text messages I received during election week. They sunk further down in my thread and I refused to give them any more of my energy.
But the metaphor of the plant stuck with me. And from it emerged a vision.
What if, as members of opposing sides, we defined ourselves by our extremes and our roots?
What if we dug in our roots, not along divergent lines of right and wrong, but down and in, tumbling over and under and toward one another in a dance of intertwining destiny?
And from there, what if we were so extreme to dare think we could rise together toward the radical changes we seek—and dearly need?
We might send our roots so deep that one day we would finally tap into that place where we all began, the place we meet: we are all human.
From there we might spread our shoots and branches from seedbeds diverse, reaching so high and wide, and stretching to such extremes, that the furthest edges of our leaves might one day touch each other in surprise recognition.
We’re all rooted in the same source. But sometimes we forget we have roots at all.
My vision is that we will remember our shared roots, and that one day there will no longer be a “radical right” or a “radical left” in our public discourse. There will only be the radical we.
“They” are not our enemies. “They” are not the left or the right. They are the other half of us.
This article originally appeared in Kosmos Journal at this link.
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