Radicalism for the Rest of Us

On Saturday mornings, my wife and I usually turn on the public access channels available in our area. They’re usually pretty wholesome and give us something to relax to that doesn’t suck us down into the depths of social media. Well, a few weeks ago, a Bible study started playing. It’s no secret that, in my household, we’re conservative Christians. So, when this guy on the TV started waffling about women’s ordination, my wife reacted loudly. “He’s about to say, ‘The Bible doesn’t really say women can’t be pastors!’ It’s so irritating.” I said we should hear him out; he might have actually have a good argument. My wife said, “How is it that you can be so calm and objective about this stuff?”

That got me thinking. Am I really calm and objective with people I disagree with? Yes, I think so, but I don’t think this has anything to do with my personal character or fortitude. It’s a skill I’ve trained in myself (or rather a set of presuppositions I’ve trained out of myself). The difference is that I’ve become comfortable with radical ideas.

Everyone’s a Radical

For those of us who have grown up in liberal societies, there’s this gut reaction against radical ideas. By “radical,” I don’t mean “extreme” (although certainly many “radical” ideas are also extreme). I mean radical in the etymological sense of the word, i.e., coming from the root. Radical ideas are those perspectives which strike at the core presuppositions we hold. In order to get at the root of things, we have to move some dirt, but when we’re the ones planted in that dirt, it feels like death to be ripped out of it. So instead of really getting down to the core of our beliefs, we dig our feet in and assume we’re right.

This helps to explain the phenomenon of the “New Right.” In reality, the New Right is just the center of twenty years ago. (If you’re feeling adventurous, look up Joe Bidens views on sexuality from 2008.) America’s new political right is not made up of conservatives at all. Donald Trump and Dave Rubin are not conservatives; they’re reactionary radicals. I don’t mean this in the sense that the progressive left means it. Instead, I mean to say that they are firmly planted in the ideological soil of the liberal order. The so-called “extreme” behavior of this camp is only a result of the ground shifting beneath them. The world they were created in is not the world they live in anymore, and it’s produced a fight or flight response.

The point is this: everyone is a radical.

Two Kinds of Redpill

The cool kids these days talk about being redpilled. I can discern roughly two meanings of this phrase.

First, to be redpilled may simply mean to become more conservative. This is what I often see with leftists. As the progressive left gets more extreme, they get uncomfortable. For a while, they may go along with the “progress,” but it’s only superficial. They want to continue to identify with the agents of progress, the right side of history, but then they reach a breaking point. The extreme left starts to pull them in a direction that challenges their core presuppositions. In response, they recoil back to where they were a few years (or months or weeks) earlier. Bari Weiss is one example of this. A move like this looks a lot like a move to the right, but these people have not changed any of their core beliefs. They are radically the same as they’ve always been.

On another level, to be redpilled could mean to be ideologically uprooted. Instead of moving around in the matrix, you’re pulled out of it entirely. Your radical beliefs are ripped out from under you, and you’re left to find new soil. Although I wouldn’t describe myself as redpilled (in fact, I think it’s kind of cringe), this is what happened to me. My formal training is in mathematics, and a big part of that training is about getting to the (square) root of things. Higher level math isn’t about solving formulas; it’s about understanding how things work. A well-trained mathematician will have been guided through a long course of study that involves going back to core assumptions such as “numbers exist.” And even that is an unsatisfying starting point for some people.

Escaping the Cave of Liberalism

Thus, my journey out of liberalism (in the classical sense) began with mathematics. As I learned to start from the beginning of math, I began to look for the beginning in everything. What I found was startling.

For example, most modern people take for granted that democracy is good, but that proposition is not a true starting point. It’s not what some have called a properly basic belief. It relies on an entire system of metaphysics, epistemology, and anthropology to support it. In the Western liberal order, that system is almost entirely a product of the Enlightenment, and it is by no means a well-tested system. In fact, we’ve only got about three hundred years of data on it, and we’ve already seen the numerous plotholes in the Enlightenment worldview come to bear on our world.

Our entire modern world is built on Enlightenment thinking. Step into any university’s Philosophy 101, and you’ll likely see this in full force. Sure, they’ll talk about the Greeks and maybe some other classical traditions. Maybe they’ll even give a nod to Thomas Aquinas. But eighty percent of the course is focused on philosophy after Descartes.

But if you read Descartes and philosophers after him, you’ll see that they’ve built a worldview on flawed assumptions and arguments. Everyone praises Descartes for cogito ergo sum, but we don’t like to talk about his abysmally poor argument for the existence of God and the material world. Downstream, we’ve ended up with pure subjectivism and relativism. The great glories of mOdErNiTy have given way to postmodern chaos, revealing that our whole modern world is built on a foundation of sand.

Learning to Love Radicalism

So how did I become so comfortable engaging with so-called radical ideas? My own radix was uprooted. I know what it feels like to lose my foundation. I know what it means to be ideologically homeless.

Of course, I stand by my assertion that everyone is a radical, so I’m certainly not excluded from that. The difference, however, is that I can be radically self-aware. Everyone has to plant their feet somewhere, but we must also be cognizant of that fact that we are, in fact, planted. What’s more, it’s entirely possible for any one of us to be transplanted. The first radical move is always difficult, but it’s worth it. Even more, it’s radically human to deeply know our roots. If you want to be more open-minded to the whole range of possible ideological gardens, you must first look to your own.