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Why should we take radical views seriously?

by David Barnhill last modified Aug 14, 2010 09:58 AM

"These views and values are so different what is commonly held, and they would be impossible to achieve. So why bother thinking about them?"

Well, first, because radical views are, and always have been, a part of environmentalism and social theory. Starting with Thoreau, continuing through Muir, and especially since the 1960s, radical views have been a central part of environmental philosophy, environmental politics, ecospirituality, environmental economics, nature writing, and even the philosophy of science. To simply dismiss them is to simply ignore a substantial part of the field of environmental studies, which would limit one’s understanding not only of the field of environmental studies but also limit one’s understanding of the world. There has to be something going on in such views; they have to tell us something about the world. Even if they are ultimately wrong. You don’t have to agree with them, but for a student of environmental studies or nature writing, they deserve a good hearing.

But the more important question is that of substance. Just sticking with the views presented, why should we take them seriously? One response to that question is simple: why not? That is an important question: there should be good reasons for denying something, even something that might seem strange. Authentic criticism must be based on a deep understanding of the view critiqued. You first have to make the effort to see how they make sense to those holding them. Then you probe their limitations and problems. But even that is not enough. You need to imagine how they would respond to your criticisms, and how they would critique your view. Then you reply to their response, and so on. Now you are really engaging in critical thinking. Anything less is, well, superficial.

So how do we take seriously radical views? I think there are two main ways. First, you need to try to understand their assessment of our current situation. This often gets overlooked, but unless you comprehend that assessment, you don’t know “where they are coming from.” In the case of radical environmental – or better, ecosocial – views, a key question is: how bad is it? Our culture, like almost any culture, trains us to see our world as fundamentally, almost unquestionably, good. Radical thinkers have broken away from that training to what they believe is a truer view: things are fundamentally wrong. Whether it is their view of the amount of environmental destruction or social injustice, or more personally, their view on our psychological deficiencies or distorted values, they hold that our current situation is unacceptable. “So I think it's this larger issue of what is acceptable and what is not,” said Terry Tempest Williams. “When democracy disappears, we are asked to accept the way things are. I beg you: Do not accept the way things are.”

Before you can really reject such a view, you need to understand exactly what they find unacceptable, and why they find it unacceptable. When you get to the basis of their assessment –the beliefs and values that lead to it – then you see how it makes sense to them. You have to imaginatively enter into their worldview and see the life through their eyes, and feel their sense of pain and outrage. And then you can make a substantial critique, because you really see where they are coming from and can critically examine the basis of their views.

Now if you are to understand how their views make sense to them, you need to ask, “if things are that bad, what is the alternative, and what should one do?” That brings us to the second way of taking seriously radical views: their notion of the ideal and their notion of praxis in light of that ideal. (Praxis is shorthand for a practice or set of actions intentionally designed, a putting into practice a particular view of things. Often it is used in terms of religious praxis, but also can be used for social or environmental praxis.)

We can assess an ideal and praxis in at least four main ways. First, does their ideal and their praxis make sense within their view of things? That is, is it in line with their notion of the problem and their beliefs and values? Or is it contradictory? Does the ideal and the praxis actually go against their basic values?

  • For instance, does the ideal of self-sufficient bioregional communities contradict their belief in interrelatedness and concern for others?
  • Does the ideal of self-sufficiency contradict their notion of justice and equality – because some communities might be hierarchical and racist?

Here the judgment is primarily one of logical consistency.

The second is theoretical. Is their ideal and praxis based on beliefs and values that are right and good?

  • For instance, is the bioregional view that we are fundamentally interrelated to each other and the earth wrong and bad, because we are individuals related primarily to a transcendent God?

Obviously you need to be clear what the beliefs and values of your “opponent” are, and why you reject them. That means you need to be clear what your beliefs and values are, and be able to argue that they are better than those you are criticizing. Such clear and deep self-understanding is essential to critical thinking.

A third way of assessing an ideal and praxis is effect. If we actually did what the praxis calls for, would that produce good results? If we actually were able to achieve that ideal, would that be a good thing?

  • Let’s say the praxis involves civil disobedience. Will that result in lawlessness?
  • Let’s say the ideal is small-scale bioregional communities, will that lead to greater injustice because the poor in the cities would suffer?

Such a judgment will depend on various beliefs, particularly about history, human nature, and how different societies work.

A fourth way of assessing an ideal and praxis is effectiveness. This criticism is often put in terms of: “it’s not realistic.” Is the ideal actually realizable? Is the praxis something people just won’t participate in? This type of criticism is different than the others because one could be totally sympathetic with their values and goals – and just think that there is no way they can be realized.

  • For instance, if the praxis calls for giving up technology and growing all your own food, will anyone, at least in our society, really do that?
  • Or if the ideal is living in small, communitarian societies without social hierarchies, is there any chance that could be achieved?

These judgments involve views of human nature, and also theories of political, social, and economic power.

I think it is important to spend a little time on the question of effectiveness. How could a radical respond to the criticism that their views are not realistic? One response is that: look to the past, radical changes have occurred, changes people would have said have no chance of being realized. The modern era has seen the jettisoning of centuries-old monarchies, a pacifist grass-roots movement kicking the world’s biggest empire out of their country (Gandhi and India), the peaceful transition to black rule in South Africa. Just because something seems unrealistic to conventional society doesn’t mean it’s unachievable.

I think the more interesting responses to the charge of being unrealistic are the ones who accept that the ideal is in all likelihood unachievable. There are at least four ways a radical view could be supported in that case. The first focuses on the critique and ideal, rather than praxis. One could say that we need to make the radical critique simply because it is true; we need to be able to see things as they really are, even if they are bleak. And we need to know what the ideal should be, even if we can’t realize it. This response, however, doesn’t really support the kind of actions that radicals promote. How can radical action be defended if the ideal isn’t achievable?

Well, one could say, as the second way to support an unrealizable ideal, that while it can’t be fully achieved, the best way to improve the current situation is to aim toward that ideal and approach it as much as we can. The ideal provides a distant goal that gives direction to our praxis. We are called to make the world the best it can be, and this is the way.

A third way to support an unrealizable ideal is to say that, O.K., it can’t be achieved throughout society, but it can be substantially achieved by particular groups in particular areas. Society as a whole will largely continue on its way and there is nothing one can do about that, but what is possible is for some people to work toward and possibly achieve the ideal.

The fourth way is to shift the focus away from achievability. Here the main concern is with praxis rather than ideal (in this way the fourth way is opposite of the first one, which focused on the ideal). This approach is “deontological.” Whatever the consequences, we are called to follow this praxis. It could be a sense of ethical duty in the face of evil. It also could involve a sense that this is a spiritual praxis, bringing a spiritual fulfillment because what one is doing is in line with ultimate reality and the deepest values.

A radical view, by definition, goes against the grain of our culture. It opposes what we can call the basic cultural subtext: this is the right culture, the good society, and all alternatives are far worse. In addition, all of the four responses to the issue of effectiveness go against a predominant quality of our culture: we expect satisfaction. If something can’t be successful, then it is bad. This attitude is inherited from the ideology of progress and reinforced by the consumer culture. Once two different companies were running advertisements with the same logo: “who says you can’t have it all.”

By contrast, many other cultures have had what can be called a tragic view of life: life, while full of value, is also full of suffering. The good often fails; the bad often triumphs. In that perspective, it is the notion that life should satisfy our desires and expectations that is “unrealistic.” A tragic view would find quite odd the belief that only that which can prevail is worth pursuing. Our place is to see, sharply, the good and the evil, and to work toward the good, knowing it may well not prevail.

Or, to put it in a more down-to-earth and humorous way, we can quote from the post-apocalyptic novel Good News (22) by radical activist Edward Abbey:
"There's only one thing wrong with always fighting for freedom, and justice, and decency. And so forth."
            Burns looks up at the blazing sky. "Only one thing? What's that?”
            "You almost always lose."
            The old man laughs, reaches out, and squeezes Sam's near arm. "Well, hellfire, Sam, what does that have to do with it?"

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by David Barnhill last modified Aug 14, 2010 09:58 AM