Radicalism and pragmatism

To be a radical is to look at the world about you, and to see it not through the lenses of what you have been told it should be, but rather to attempt to see it as it actually is.

We are told a bunch of things, like we have a democracy, when in fact it is—importantly different—a republic.[1] We are taught the “American Dream,” when in fact the ladder of social mobility is really quite steep for an allegedly affluent “democracy.”[2] We imagine that people get what they deserve, that merit is rewarded,[3] when in fact so-called meritocracy amounts to the powerful protecting their own positions and for the benefit of their own children.[4] The list goes on but ultimately, the only improvement these beliefs can offer over magical thinking is that they carry moral force. To believe them, however, simply because they are how things ought to be, is to commit the naturalistic fallacy.[5]

Yet when we seriously challenge these beliefs, we are accused of being radicals. Pragmatism, it is alleged, is to embrace the beliefs, to never veer far from them, to adhere closely to the “middle way,” to be “centrist.” In short, to be “pragmatic,” we must be delusional.

And we must be so even as there are real world consequences. People go hungry. The news on climate keeps getting worse. People are homeless. Our planet is being ravaged. People lack safe drinking water. This is another list that goes on.

I am “radical” when I point to social, economic, and environmental inequality. I am “pragmatic” if I downplay or ignore inequality.

Which is to say, I am pragmatic if I argue to protect the wealthy in their positions of power or in support of systems of inequality. I am radical if I suspect that these systems are related to each other.[6]

I have, in the past, embraced the label “radical.” But to do so is to reify a false pragmatism. It is a false radicalism that is ultimately pragmatic.

  1. [1]James Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” in Kelly Kyuzawa with Robert Brammer, eds., “The Federalist Papers,” Congress, May 3, 2016, https://www.congress.gov/resources/display/content/The+Federalist+Papers
  2. [2]Claude S. Fischer, Michael Hout, Martin Sanchez Jankowski, Samuel R. Lucas, Ann Swidler, and Kim Voss, “Why Inequality?” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005).
  3. [3]Thomas M. Shapiro, “Introduction,” in Great Divides: Readings
    in Social Inequality in the United States
    , ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005).
  4. [4]Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (New York: Crown, 2012).
  5. [5]Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in A World of Strangers (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006).
  6. [6]Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella, II, eds. Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals(New York: Lantern, 2004); Greta Gaard, “Vegetarian Ecofeminism: A Review Essay,” Frontiers 23, no. 3 (2002): 117-146.