What Radicalisation Can Teach Us About Ourselves

In 2007, a team of linguists at Stanford University conducted a simple and fascinating test. They assembled a group of people – some who spoke English, some who spoke Russian – and asked each of them to perform a task. They were given cards, each coloured in a shade of blue, and asked to match up any cards that had the same shade of blue on them, and to do so as quickly as they could.

The linguists timed everyone as they did this, and found that Russian speakers were significantly quicker at the task than the English.

Why do you think this was? Are Russians more nimble-fingered? Is their eyesight superior? Are they better at following instructions? The answer to all of these is no.

Rather, the linguists believed it was because the English language has only one word for blue, while Russian has two, to differentiate lighter and darker shades of the colour.

Remarkably, this linguistic distinction makes it easier for a Russian-speaker’s brain to make the visual distinction. Or to put it another way, the study suggests that the more precise our language, the more clearly we can see the world.

To me, this brings to mind William Blake’s famous words, that “if the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” The Stanford study is a reminder that language is a powerful tool for helping cleanse our perception, something Blake undoubtedly knew too. In his poem London for example, he used his command of the English language to describe the city’s poverty and pollution to a rich elite, who sometimes seemed blind to what was a reality for many.

But Blake’s poetry and Stanford’s linguists also remind us of the limitations of our language: that our perception is not fully cleansed, and that we should remain attuned to ways we can see the world more clearly, and communicate about it more vividly. The test at Stanford found this out by exploring how a word is understood in two different places.

But we can also learn by exploring how a word is understood in two different times: etymology often reveals surprising things about what has been gained or lost in a word’s meaning over time.

Take the word ‘radicalisation’ for example. It’s a word we hear a lot these days. On the lips of journalists, politicians and policy makers, it tends to describe someone’s journey towards an ideology that embraces destruction and murder. And so it is unequivocally a bad thing… or is it?

Radical derives from the same word as radish, meaning root. And so radicalisation literally describes the process of ‘returning to the root’. In religion or ideology – the realms in which we tend to use the word – radicalisation therefore means to ‘re-root’ our beliefs in the place that they originate.

Speaking as a Christian, by this definition radicalisation starts to sound quite enticing: to disentangle my faith from corrupting influences, to root it in the nourishment of God’s love, and then to grow in accordance with that love. And by this definition, my faith is littered with inspiring, radicalising figures too: the Prophet Jeremiah campaigned for the Israelites to root themselves in God’s law once again; Jesus came to fulfil the original Jewish laws and scriptures that preceded him; and Martin Luther King sought to root man’s law in God’s law.

So how has this word radicalisation – that defines work done by Jesus and Jeremiah – become fit to describe Anders Brevik or Osama Bin Laden? The former embody love and non-violence, the latter hate and murder. Is this just a bizarre, inexplicable anomaly in the never-ending evolution of the English language? Or might this linguistic change tell us something about how our world has changed too? To be honest, I’m not an etymologist and I don’t know.

But I do know one thing: things don’t end well for radicals. Jesus or Jeremiah. Brevik or Bin Laden. They all met imprisonment or death. However you understand the term, being radicalised means deviating from the status quo to an extent that brings the ire and retribution of the status quo’s gatekeepers.

But Jesus explicitly and repeatedly called us to this kind of radicalisation, and to bring these things upon ourselves: we are to “pick up our cross and follow him”, with the topsy-turvy reassurance that “blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.

This invitation – to live a life in opposition to many of the powers that govern our world – is one that I often want to ignore. To be radicalised in this way seems far too painful and difficult to actually do. It’s much easier instead to equate radical behaviour with deviant behaviour, in order to continue with a more comfortable life.

And so even though Blake’s poetry and Stanford’s linguists show us that precise language allows us to see the world more clearly, I wonder if our imprecise use of ‘radicalisation’ shows that we don’t always want to see the world more clearly, because to do so means to invite more pain and suffering upon ourselves.

In Blake’s poem London he described just this pain and suffering to people who would probably rather not have known about it. As journalists, we can surely identify with Blake in this instance. But should we identify with his audience too? There are surely things that we would rather not know about? Being a radical certainly seems like one of them.

Jake Lloyd is a Studio Director at the BBC and Communications Co-ordinator at Arukah Network