What’s “radical” now may soon be common-sense


Matthew Marotto

If asked about their thoughts on slavery, an ordinary voting American in 1800 would likely be indifferent or supportive. If asked about women’s suffrage, they’d likely have never considered such an absurd proposition.

However, slavery was later abolished and women gained the right to vote. Consequently, today’s popular opinions consider those of 1800 not only obsolete, but inhumane and unconstitutional.

Although difficult to notice in the moment, the views of one era have continued to change from its predecessors: It was only in the 1990s that less than 30 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriage as opposed to 70 percent today; it was in 1969 that 84 percent of Americans wanted cannabis to remain illegal, but by 2019, 67 percent wanted to see it legalized.

Whether recreational drug use or constitutional rights, the perceptions on practically every social issue evolve, begging the question: Will those in future centuries look back at our current ideals and decisions in bewilderment and disgust, as we do to past generations?

I believe they will. While we may not be repeating history word for word, crime for crime, we are repeating it with our reluctance to progress away from tradition — especially amidst today’s conservative revival.

Famously demonstrated by Shirley Jackson’s 1948 story “The Lottery,” traditions shouldn’t be maintained due to their longevity and popularity. The people of Jackson’s “village” annually stoned one of their own to death in an agricultural sacrifice. While their favoring of tradition is undeniably more backwards than most modern cases, it reflects the same “it’s too radical” mentality that prevents the adoption of new ideas and the discarding of old ones.

This habit plagues every generation, but given the weight of today’s issues and moral dilemmas, we can no longer afford to obstruct progress. Exemplified by the climate crisis, decades of inaction have culminated in the current predicament where moderate policies are no longer viable solutions.

Personifying the crisis’ futile middle approach, Senator Joe Manchin has sought to “balance” traditional fossil fuels and sustainability through successful efforts to block the incentivization of renewable energy while opening public lands to oil drilling. Even as a 2021 study by the International Energy Agency found that “to reach net zero emissions by 2050, annual clean energy investment worldwide will need to more than triple by 2030 to around $4 trillion,” Manchin inexplicably followed the rationale: It’s just too much, too soon.

This dogmatism will likely deprive our planet of justice as it has done to people.

Take the death penalty: a practice rejected by the majority of nations and, by most interpretations, unaligned with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nationally, the Eighth Amendment further protects Americans from “cruel and unusual punishments.” Yet, the U.S. is one of the few remaining developed countries to use the death penalty.

It’s shocking considering that a 2014 study conservatively estimated that from 1973 to 2004, at least four percent of executions terminated the lives of innocent Americans. It’s also tragic that Black Americans comprise 41 percent of death penalty victims but only 13 percent of the nation’s population.

Costing financially more than life sentences, killing innocent Americans, systematically targeting minorities and historically failing to deter crime, capital punishment is perhaps the most modern, clear-cut case of irrationally favoring tradition over what’s right.

Equally notable is its public support: A 1995 Gallup poll found that 80 percent of Americans backed capital punishment; that’s down to 55 percent today. This decline suggests that the death penalty will eventually be eliminated, but efforts to do so and reform criminal justice systems often face effective criticism that deems them “weak on crime” or “too progressive.”

This belongs to the familiar trend of Manchin’s environmental moderation while the United Nations climate chief recently warned, “We don’t have a moment to lose.” In times of unparalleled challenges, unparalleled change is required. If the primary argument for keeping the old order is its existence, then we must reconsider.

Although I can’t predict the next healthcare policy to be ridiculed as “communist” — only to later be popularly adopted as with Medicaid — I worry that we will backtrack through this era’s unprecedented obstacles, recklessly casting away potential solutions for being “too extreme.”

We have a record of following antiquated ways, and then of reversing our beliefs — and then failing to acknowledge the transition. We must recognize this pattern and that instantaneous majority opinions, or indifferences, aren’t guarantees of righteousness. Thus, it should not be tradition and current trends that we exclusively look to for guidance, but rather past mistakes and future likelihoods.

The majority of Americans once supported slavery and sharecropping and then segregation. Years from now, it’ll likely be hard to imagine some of our present views — perhaps the current disregard for child labor or backing of prejudiced immigration policies.

This inevitability underscores the need to examine the status quo and open ourselves to new ideas and possibilities. What’s “radical” now may soon be common-sense; crusading against it might only delay progress.

Illustration by Julia Frankus