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Why we shouldn’t allow government to poison the concept of radicalism

Chérieux_-_Club_des_femmes_patriotes_dans_une_église_-_1793By Simon Davies

We should all be on alert whenever government tries to embed a transitive verb into popular language; it usually signals an impending campaign of fear and hatred.

The transitive verb of the moment is “radicalized”. The word has, in a very short time, become part of the global political and media vocabulary – to such an extent that many people now see it as a self evident truth that requires an equally self evident extreme response..

To be radicalized is the outcome of a process of radicalization (n), in the same way that the transitive verb poisoned is the outcome of the process of poisoning (n).. Such a scourge infers the need for a perhaps even more radical adjustment to legal rights and government authority. And of course, the popular perception of radicalization has indeed become the justification for a wide range of new police and security powers that test the limits of any liberal constitution.

Transitive verbs used in this way are extremely powerful linguistic devices, chiefly because they indicate a fixed and perverted outcome that requires emergency intervention

Even Prince Charles recently used the word in a way that bolstered the heightened security measures being taken by such countries as the UK, Belgium, Italy, France, Australia and Spain.

One unfortunate outcome of this trend is that it poisons the concept of radicalism, a noble element in all social and political reform.. Indeed the roots of radicalism go to the heart of democratic and liberal reform. When used in a negative context though, it can easily subvert perceptions of trades unionism or civil rights reform and even destabilise democratic safeguards. Government is now appropriating the idea of radicalism and turning it into something entirely destructive

Think also of another transitive verb; “infected”. When governments link nouns with transitive verbs they set in place a popular perception that society faces a sinister – often invisible – toxic element that creates an equally toxic (noun) outcome. So, radicalisation inevitably breeds radicals. And radicals, by inference, are a toxin.

You can see the noun-transitive verb equation at work in many government and media campaigns throughout recent history.

Consider another powerful word that has deep historical roots – “subversion”. Subversion is a potent noun that leads to the transitive verb ‘subverted”. Both words were used extensively in the hysterical anti-communist era of McArthyism in the US. The test of whether a person had been subverted was one of loyalty – and the calculated slur was that any subversive is disloyal.

The same process occurs time and time again throughout history, from the Spanish Inquisition that sought the cleansing of heretics from the orthodox church, to the War on Drugs that struck fear into the hearts of millions by inculcating a popular obsession about the now discredited “gateway” effect.

The problem with creating such linguistic trickery is that it gains a life of its own. McArythism showed that “communist infiltration” led to the toxin of subversion which in turn created the demand for a test of loyalty that applied to swathes of the US population and which finally led to a culture of fear and suspicion. These elements led to institutional mass-reporting of anyone who generated even the slightest degree of suspicion. In a similar vein, new UK legislation requires all public sector employees to report any perceived precursor of radicalisation, even among young children. This cannot end well.

Few people would suggest that radicalisation is a real issue that requires some form of action, but all of us would be wise to recall lessons from history. Without care, our societies will suffer fear and division to an extent that is barely imaginable.