Is it too late to suggest a moratorium on this expression, so beloved of journalists; at least until we and they can decide what we mean by it? The online Oxford dictionary suggests a definition for radicalize as “Cause (someone) to become an advocate of radical political or social reform” from which it follows that the noun equates to the process by which that someone’s views are shifted. Unfortunately, usage of this term comes laden with a heavy baggage of value judgement that is not helpful to understanding.
We used to hear that political parties were being radicalized; by which we were supposed to understand that the original and pure principles of an organization were being subverted by infiltrators; never that the organization was responding to wishes of supporters that it should change. And then Radicalization was a pop psychology phrase for what happened to soldiers caught up in the suffering of unjustified wars (e.g. Vietnam). In each case the object of the process is seen as essentially passive, maybe even innocent, while the process is malevolent or at least harmful.
This is not the place for me to defend the long and honourable tradition of radicalism through the ages. It should be self-evident that when circumstances no longer correspond to an established or traditional view, progress depends upon someone, whether right or left, proposing a solution that will inevitably seem radical until it is swallowed into the orthodoxy. Of course it’s my opponent’s views that are radical; mine are bold and visionary.
In respect of Vietnam veterans, it was at least not silly to infer that they were the passive receptors of experience over which they had no control once they had been drafted. By contrast, in the present context we are concerned with a willed decision to become an adherent of an aggressively fundamentalist and a-logical branch of militant religion, whether as supporter or combatant. “Radicalization” is now just a label we affix to provide some explanation for what is otherwise disturbing and mysterious – that individuals who enjoy the benefits of modern civilisation might choose to reject them and opt for the stone age. In fact our journalists believe their own froth so much that every time we are presented with the hungry savage face of the enemy within, they go combing through the perpetrator’s past life to find that key moment when (s)he became “radicalized”.
Personally, I object to the word “radical” being used as a synonym for “murderous” but the implications of the language run deeper. You see the importance of the “-ized” here. If you are a Radical, it means that you have arrived at a set of conclusions by considering evidence and experience of life. If someone you know has been Radicalized, they suffered change as a result of something that was done to them, like being bitten by a walking corpse and waking up a zombie.
The language is dishonestly applied to individuals making their own choices, but it suits all sides that it should be so. For apologists, and those liberals still clinging to the notion that enlightened self-interest governs our lives, it’s helpful to consider that a deluded few have suffered contagion that has taken them away from their cozy previous selves and perhaps with a shared cup of tea and a sympathetic ear they can be turned back to the light. For the hawkish, radicalization is akin to demonic possession; something evil that walks among us and must be rooted out. In both cases, fundamentalist convictions are separated from the person holding them: one group is concerned to redeem the person and the other to resist the abstract evil.
We should respect the individual to the extent of considering what they do for good or ill as proceeding from them; otherwise a human life is a waste of time. We have experiences; we seek out others; we exercise judgement and we reach conclusions: ultimately we act. Sometimes the things that people do justify it being said of them that they have irredeemably used up their potential as humans (the only true argument against the death penalty is that we, as society, should not be complicit in even judicially sanctioned murder – nothing to do with the murderer’s “rights”). Tolstoy claimed that “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner” which is memorable, but wrong – at least; whether or not we pardon the perpetrator of an act, we need to hold them accountable for its consequences – this is called living in society. A society which uses language that is too cowardly to say what it means is weakened in consequence more than it knows.