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Destigmatizing the Word “Radical”

Makeena Rivers | Dec 20, 2020

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Makeena Rivers | Dec 20, 2020

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

Does the word “radical” make you think of something dangerous or wrong? These times call for radical change — so maybe for those of us who aren’t used to the term, it’s time to grow comfortable with it.

When you think of the word “radical,” you might think of historical figures — someone who vocalized their passion for uprooting the political, social, or cultural norms of their time. By definition, most of us agree that radicality implies thorough and far-reaching change. 

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Personally, when I hear the word “radical,” I think of Malcolm X. I grew up hearing white adults and educators typically talk about Malcolm X as if his demands were extreme and his methods uncalled for. Like many other students in the United States, we were taught that Malcolm X was radical in comparison to Martin Luther King Jr. — that MLK was a symbol of peace and Malcolm X a symbol of disruption. 

Malcolm X

But as I learned more about Malcom X, I realized that he was radical in that he expressed his dissatisfaction with the state of the world in a way that didn’t coddle the feelings of the oppressors he was up against. I went from appreciating Malcolm X’s unapologetic style to recognizing that he and Martin Luther King Jr. were both radical. 

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Martin Luther King Jr.

People might call for positive radical change in their political, economic, or cultural reality because they have seen supposed transformation begin to happen but not actually stick. People have also seen changes in policy that carry the same racism, ableism, or exclusion with them in a new form. Ultimately, being radical is about the contrast between a person’s core beliefs and how the society around them functions, and it can be directed towards positive or negative change.

I often reflect on how the Baha’i writings are also radical. The central figures of the Baha’i Faith called for drastic, fundamental shifts in the way society functions. For example, Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, called for radical reformation in a speech in 1911:

If spirituality be not renewed, what fruits come from mere physical reformation? For instance, the body of man may improve, the quality of bone and sinew may advance, the hand may develop, other limbs and members may increase in excellence, but if the mind fails to develop, of what use is the rest? The important factor in human improvement is the mind. In the world of the mind there must needs be development and improvement. There must be reformation in the kingdom of the human spirit; otherwise, no result will be attained from betterment of the mere physical structure.

Radical change often seeks the “reformation in the kingdom of the human spirit.” True radicality requires that we address both systemic flaws and the underlying spiritual issues at play. 

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For example, parceling out chunks of land — or providing a shortlist of resources for Native American folks — does not make up for a history of genocide when America still perpetuates bias and erasure that violates the health, prosperity, and well-being of Native American communities across the country. 

Imagine what would be possible if we collectively developed a sense of generosity, honesty, and a desire for justice that allows predominantly white folks with disproportionate amounts of socio-political power to find creative responses for the gruesome injustices inflicted upon Native people. 

To recognize that “radicality” can be a productive means of understanding that many people in our world are suffering a great deal. When we apply a radical mindset towards establishing justice, unity, and wellness, we can look beyond political changes and into the deeper parts of who we are as people who need to change, using spiritual tools and our intellect to better the world around us. 

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