Americans are not radicals. It is time we rethought this idea that we can indulge “secular radicalization,” or any sort of radicalization, without profound, adverse consequences.
Have you ever found a random quarter on the ground, stumbled over cross-application of an idea, and said – yes, that is the real problem, and lights go on? That just happened for me.
“Radicalization” is a word often applied to religious or political zealotry, a narrowing of perspective, intentional disinterest in contrary opinions or reasoning, cultivating a “pure” and objectively “extreme” perspective on life, religion, or politics.
“Violent radicalism” takes it a step further. Those ideologically radicalized justify any behavior, including violence, in pursuit of idealized aims, whether radical Islam or some other zealotry.
Libraries are filled with literature about how and why individuals and groups fall into step with radical ideas, begin narrowing, dismissing, delegitimizing those with whom they disagree.
Missing from the literature is the notion that radicalism and progressive violent radicalism – including isolation, reinforcing habits, condemnation, physical violence – can be highly secular, issue-specific, not linked to any religion, ideology, or “-ism.”
In other words, individuals can get preoccupied and thus close-minded, habitually distracted by a secular concern as easily as religious or ideological ideas. As if stumbling over that quarter, a recent Pew study caught the trend.
The world seems awash in rejection of other people based on purist political, religious, ideological, cultural, and even issue-specific ideas. Tolerance for the difference is low, pride high.
The study signals growing rigidity, loss of mental plasticity, as if flexible minds are being replaced by inflexible thinking – or non-thinking, contentment in convictions not revisited.
The study suggests many Americans are teaching themselves or allowing themselves to be taught that a nimble mind, principled but open to amendment by reference to logic, history, or persuasion, is out.
Moreover, they are increasingly aware others are inflexible, reinforcing the trend, gradually radicalizing sentiment. They see “fading trust as a sign of cultural sickness and national decline,” accentuated by “increased loneliness and excessive individualism,” radical retreat.
The poll reports, “many ascribe shrinking trust to a political culture they believe is broken and spawns suspicion, even cynicism, about the ability of others to distinguish fact from fiction.” In effect, we are beginning to wonder about the mental state and reasoning ability of others.
Of course, much of this involves differences over government, but other bits are as serious. In an age of unregulated social media, distaste for difference, unwillingness to question ourselves, no appetite for being wrong, and no openness to compromise, radicalism thrives.
What we are seeing is a fracturing of the “public mind,” into thousands of slices – and an openness to “secular radicalism,” the idea that we can get religious about an opinion – to the exclusion of all others, radical in support of our slice.
Today, extremism in support of every political, ideological, social, economic, environmental, experimental, health-related, ethnic, racial, tribal, even personality-driven prejudice is suddenly justified – as an all-consuming life mission, worthy of radical adhesion or condemnation.
“Secular radicalization” – even if not violent – is unhealthy. It elevates everything to urgent, pits us against each other, turning us into windup toys, defending narrow opinions as all-important.
Thus, we fight to the death over being pro- or anti-climate, law enforcement, renewable energy, transgender, arguing over what parts of history to destroy, statues to tear down, riots to permit, children’s books to ban, demanding new genders, “pronouns,” apologies for slights, whether our neighbor is wearing a mask, the right shade, worthy of being violently confronted.
Worse, complicit social media enablers and big tech encourage us to habituate these behaviors, repeat our prejudices, reinforce isolation, separatism, condemnation, acts that narrow us.
In short, we are becoming – and literature has not caught up – a self-radicalizing society, a collection of insanely self-assured social misfits, content to drift into pitched battles over narrow policy differences with religious conviction, then declare all the world heretics.
We are indulging – or some of us are – the idea that hysteria is permissible. In effect, too many Americans are accepting “secular radicalization,” self-taught irrationality in defense of a cause or prejudice, climate change to unisex bathrooms, defunding police to vilifying neighbors.
Bottom line: Americans are not radicals. It is time we rethought this idea that we can indulge “secular radicalization,” or any sort of radicalization, without profound, adverse consequences. If you have stumbled on the same quarter, pocket it – and let’s start turning things around.
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