What makes someone an extremist or a radical? Simple: holding views that are far outside the perceived center of a society. Both “extremist” and “radical” are used almost exclusively as pejoratives. Labeling someone an extremist or a radical is a way of dismissing their argument on the basis of it’s unpopularity. This, of course, is an ad populum fallacy of reasoning; but everyday people take great comfort and security in knowing that a large group of their peers agree with them.
Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day; a day to celebrate the life and achievements of a great civil rights activist. Everywhere I look people praise MLK jr. like he was a saint. I hear things like: “A true patriot!”, a “real American!”, a “crusader for justice.” He’s put up there on a shelf with the founding fathers and Gandhi.
I find it really interesting that he’s universally lauded as such when, in the past, things were just the opposite. In MLK’s day he was not viewed as a true patriot, a real American, or a crusader for justice. No, he was an extremist, a radical, a trouble-maker. He was harassed and spied upon endlessly by the very government that now has an official holiday in his name. The FBI even went so far as to try and threaten him into committing suicide. There is even evidence to suggest the government had a hand in his death. He was among the ranks of those some called domestic terrorists.
Despite all this you’d be hard pressed nowadays to find anyone who would disagree that he was on the right side of justice. This is because the political center of the country has shifted since that time. The point I’m trying to make is that I feel we, as a society, often dismiss ideas simply based on the fact that they’re held by a minority of people, and not out of a serious consideration of those ideas. What is radical today might not be radical in the future. There are times I feel my views are excluded from society’s conversation for being too “extreme” or “radical.” I’m referring, of course, to either anarchist or atheist sentiments, neither of which are overly popular but which nonetheless I passionately feel are correct. I would like very much to see society’s center move closer to those ends of the spectrum. That may very well be happening in the realm of religious sentiments, however, I feel the opposite is happening with regards to anarchism as I perceive a shift to more oppressive, authoritarian governments.
In regards to the efforts of any group of people on the fringes of society’s center: I believe there is a group of people in society that I would call the strident moderates. These people irk me to the core. How would I describe them? They are the people to which everything must be done in moderation. Every issue is 50/50 with both sides of a conflict having equally valid points and goals. The one thing they cannot abide is declaring one point of view more correct than another. The world is perpetually gray to them.
Slavery vs abolition? 50/50. Women’s suffrage? 50/50 Equal rights for blacks? 50/50. Equal rights for LGBTs? 50/50. It doesn’t matter the issue. It doesn’t matter what either side does, it’s always even. A prime example of this is CNN. CNN desperately wants to be the “neutral” news station. They’re so desperate to be seen as neutral that they ignore excesses on both sides of the political spectrum and end up becoming strident moderates. It doesn’t matter if republicans started punching babies, they’d find some reason why democrats would be at fault, and vice versa.
When it comes to “radicals” and “extremists” that do not see everything in the world as gray the strident moderate’s favorite word is “wait.” MLK addressed this very subject in his letter from a Birmingham jail.
“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
The point of “wait” for the stringent moderates is to make the issue go away. They hope if the extremists wait long enough, they’ll just disappear and society’s center will remain at the status quo. This is not to say that everything in the world is black and white. There are plenty of things in life where there is a ton of gray. The issue I have is with people who refuse to acknowledge that there is anything but gray. Thankfully MLK saw a black and white (pun not intended) issue for what it was: the inhumane treatment of an entire subsection of the population based solely on their skin color. So how do we know which “extremists” and “radicals” are the “good” ones? Well that’s the million dollar question isn’t it? I’m not really sure there is an easy way to divine the answer. Most of society will disagree with the fringe groups, that’s what it is to be a fringe group. Ultimately time is the final adjudicator on what ideologies are correct and which ones aren’t.