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On Tuesday 12 December 2018, I was asked in court if I had been radicalised. From the witness box I proudly answered in the affirmative. This was not the first time I had made such a public admission, but admittedly the first time in a courtroom. Sounds dramatic, but the setting was the Sessions House in Northampton and the context was a Crime and Punishment lecture. Nevertheless, such is the media and political furore around the terms radicalisation and radicalism, that to make such a statement, seems an inherently radical gesture.
So why when radicalism has such a bad press, would anyone admit to being radicalised? The answer lies in your interpretation, whether positive or negative, of what radicalisation means. The Oxford Dictionary (2018) defines radicalisation as ‘[t]he action or process of causing someone to adopt radical positions on political or social issues’. For me, such a definition is inherently positive, how else can we begin to tackle longstanding social issues, than with new and radical ways of thinking? What better place to enable radicalisation than the University? An environment where ideas can be discussed freely and openly, where there is no requirement to have “an elephant in the room”, where everything and anything can be brought to the table.
My understanding of radicalisation encompasses individuals as diverse as Edith Abbott, Margaret Atwood, Howard S. Becker, Fenner Brockway, Nils Christie, Angela Davis, Simone de Beauvoir, Paul Gilroy, Mona Hatoum, Stephen Hobhouse, Martin Luther King Jr, John Lennon, Primo Levi, Hermann Mannheim, George Orwell, Sylvia Pankhurst, Rosa Parks, Pablo Picasso, Bertrand Russell, Rebecca Solnit, Thomas Szasz, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Benjamin Zephaniah, to name but a few. These individuals have touched my imagination because they have all challenged the status quo either through their writing, their art or their activism, thus paving the way for new ways of thinking, new ways of doing. But as I’ve argued before, in relation to civil rights leaders, these individuals are important, not because of who they are but the ideas they promulgated, the actions they took to bring to the world’s attention, injustice and inequality. Each in their own unique way has drawn attention to situations, places and people, which the vast majority have taken for granted as “normal”. But sharing their thoughts, we are all offered an opportunity to take advantage of their radical message and take it forward into our own everyday lived experience.
Without radical thought there can be no change. We just carry on, business as usual, wringing our hands whilst staring desperate social problems in the face. That’s not to suggest that all radical thoughts and actions are inherently good, instead the same rigorous critique needs to be deployed, as with every other idea. However rather than viewing radicalisation as fundamentally threatening and dangerous, each of us needs to take the time to read, listen and think about new ideas. Furthermore, we need to talk about these radical ideas with others, opening them up to scrutiny and enabling even more ideas to develop. If we want the world to change and become a fairer, more equal environment for all, we have to do things differently. If we cannot face thinking differently, we will always struggle to change the world.
For me, the philosopher Bertrand Russell sums it up best
Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. It sees man, a feeble speck, surrounded by unfathomable depths of silence; yet it bears itself proudly, as unmoved as if it were lord of the universe. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man (Russell, 1916, 2010: 106).
Russell, Bertrand, (1916a/2010), Why Men Fight, (Abingdon: Routledge)
The title of this blog and the picture above relate to Norman Rockwell’s (1964) painting depicting Ruby Bridges on her way to school in a newly desegregated New Orleans. In over half a century, this picture has never lost its power and remains iconic.
Attending conferences, especially such a large one as the ASC, is always food for thought. The range of subjects covered, some very small and niche, others far more longstanding and seemingly intractable cause the little grey cells to go into overdrive. So much to talk about, so much to listen to, so many questions, so many ideas make the experience incredibly intense. However, education is neither exclusive to the conference meeting rooms nor the coffee shops in which academics gather but is all around. Naturally, in Atlanta, as I alluded to in my previous entry this week, reminders of the civil rights movement are all around us. Furthermore, it is clear from the boarded-up shops, large numbers of confused and disturbed people wandering the streets, others sleeping rough that many of the issues highlighted by the civil rights movement remain. Slavery and overt segregation under the Jim Crow laws may be a thing of the past, but their impact endures; the demarcation between rich and poor, Black and white is still obvious.
The message of civil rights activists is not focused on beatification; they are human beings with all their failings, but far more important and direct. To make society fairer, more just, more humane for all, we must keep moving forward, we must keep protesting and we must keep drawing attention to inequality. Although it is tempting to revere brave individuals such as Ruby Bridges, Claudette Colvin, Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X to name but a few, this is not an outcome any of them ascribed to. If we look at Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘“The Drum Major Instinct” Sermon Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church’ he makes this overt. He urges his followers not to dwell on his Nobel Peace Prize, or any of his other multitudinous awards but to remember that ‘he tried’ to end war, bring comfort to prisoners and end poverty. In his closing words, he stresses that
If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong,
Then my living will not be in vain.
If I can do my duty as a Christian ought,
If I can bring salvation to a world once wrought,
If I can spread the message as the master taught,
Then my living will not be in vain.
These powerful words stress practical activism, not passive veneration. Although a staunch advocate for non-violent resistance this was never intended as passive. The fight to improve society for all is not over and done, but a continual fight for freedom. This point is made explicit by another civil rights activist (and academic) Professor Angela Davis in her text Freedom is a Constant Struggle. In this text she draws parallels across the USA, Palestine and other countries, both historical and contemporaneous, demonstrating that without protest, civil and human rights can be crushed.
Whilst ostensibly Black men, women and children can attend schools, travel on public transport, eat at restaurants and participate in all aspects of society, this does not mean that freedom for all has been achieved. The fight for civil rights as demonstrated by #blacklivesmatter and #metoo, campaigns to end LGBT, religious and disability discrimination, racism, sexism and to improve the lives of refugees, illustrate just some of the many dedicated to following in a long tradition of fighting for social justice, social equality and freedom.