Why we’re afraid of “radical” social justice ideas

Angry mob of four.jpg

From feminism to veganism to everything in between, the beginning of the twenty-first century has seen some major social justice movements rise. Thanks to social media, places like Tumblr are ablaze with political discourse, ranging from so-called “radical” ideas for societal reform, to calls for moderation, to entire counter-movements. 

Some people criticize these movements for being too radical. For example, some oppose feminists who claim that we must radically change our lexicon and adopt different vocabularies because words we’ve been using for centuries are rooted in oppression. The classic example is changing “women” to “womyn.” Some people, who do agree that we still have a long way to go for women’s equality, argue that this is going too far, that we’re asking too much out of ordinary people if we want them to completely rethink their lifestyle.

I used to agree with this, and in some ways I still do. I think changing our society’s entire way of thinking and using words is an enormous project that is way too ambitious. I can see the good intentions behind it, but as an ordinary citizen I have more important things to do than scrupulously monitor my political correctness. 

Then, I started thinking more about this. Why are we so afraid of these radicalized movements? Why are we so quick to call them “ridiculous” or at best “too idealist”?

Because if you really look at it, they do have a point. Using the word “lame” as a derogatory term for someone isn’t exactly respectful to people with disabilities. And, despite the monumental steps we’ve taken towards women’s equality since the beginning of the twentieth century, western society is still underlined with patriarchal sexism. You might not see it at first, but if you look closely, and if you actually listen to women’s testimonials, it’s definitely there.

I believe we’re scared of radical social justice ideas because they challenge us to alter the perceptions we’ve grown so comfortable with. We’ve used the word “lame” as a pejorative for forever, why should we change? We’re uncomfortable with the idea that everyday things we’ve accepted without questioning might actually be wrong. And for those of us who champion ourselves as an enlightened bunch—we who are not racists, homophobes, ablists, or sexists (of course not!)—we don’t want to admit that we’re not perfect.

Social justice movements scare us because they challenge us to rethink fundamental parts of our everyday lives. And I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think we’ll be able to phase out “lame” for quite a while, but I think that will happen eventually; we’ve pretty much managed to phase out “gay” as an insult anyway.

I’m not asking you to radically change the way you act and speak (but if you do, kudos to you). I get it. It’s hard. All I believe is that it’s reasonable to be just a little more sensitive, and to start questioning things you’ve taken for granted.

Image: “Angry mob of four” by Robert Couse-BakerFlickr: angry mob. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

5 thoughts on “Why we’re afraid of “radical” social justice ideas

  1. I think I don’t like the social radicalism because I’m a conversationist not a conservative. The radicals tend to not see the good that is there. Its like tearing out the whole garden and replanting versus plucking up weeds and fertilizing the plants you want. If you tear it up there’s still a need to weed and feed, and you destroy the “soil” the parts visionaries tend not to think of. There is something good in the fact a person can be comfortable enough to say “that’s lame man” from a wheelchair. Why eliminate that perceived insult by rooting and digging, when by pruning you can spread the good in those moments.

    The radicals just don’t see deep enough. Take (sorry common example) Katlin Jenner. Their views of Gender classify women into a corner with a sharp dimorphism. No one counseled them to confront that and allowed him to “switch” and cut themself to match that set definition (one I’m not sure is healthy, purses and such are no less inherently faminen than trucks and blue jeans). So the radicals say Yay! But the real issue of gender indentity is sidestepped. All the -ism tend to be tunnel visioned.

    But saving a rainforest, reducing waste, or something is a lot more demanding on people thab being passionate about what only effects others.

    But morality is the idol of conservatives, -ism have another. But its all centered around picking what will be our savior in a western cultural paradigm of the Christ story.


  2. My first reaction was to protest that 21st century ideas were by no means radical. But when I was 18 I didn’t understand what it meant to be gay, or what constituted racism, or what feminism was. In contrast, kids who are just young teenagers already know what feminism, queer, and racism mean. I use the word “lame” so often I really would balk if it was considered socially unacceptable. But I’ve never called anyone “retarded” out of respect for awesome people I know who would be called that by others. So I could do the same for “lame”.


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