Left-wing and right-wing radicals have a similar commitment to symbolism and symbolic acts, usually to the point of neglecting issues they should care about a lot more. When I say “symbolism,” I don’t mean mere defiance, like refusing to sign a pledge of loyalty; that is ubiquitous among political activists. Nor do I merely mean spending political capital on things that matter to nobody outside the tightly knit radical group, which is another pathology altogether.
Rather, I mean that radicals of both kinds have an obsession with symbolic recognition of their beliefs. For right-wing Christians, it manifests itself in a zeal for public symbols of Christianity in the public square: nativity plays, the Ten Commandments, references to God in legislation. Although atheists are understandably offended at displays of the Ten Commandments in courthouses, there’s no real reason for Christians to promote them, except to spite atheists and to show that they’re more Christian than other people (which, again, is another pathology, the zeal to be the most extreme person).
If I were a member of the Christian Coalition, I’d probably push first of all for more anti-gay laws. For a start, they’re successful, they’d be very close to my heart, and they enable radical Christianity to lead winning battles. In addition, gay rights are an important issue: if I were a conservative Christian, I’d consider discriminating against GLBT people second in importance only to outlawing abortion.
But that’s just because I’m concerned with things like political effectiveness over symbolism. The actual members of organizations like the Christian Coalition instead prefer to wage a quixotic war to defend Christmas; while that sort of symbolism might be marginally understandable, taking offense at “Happy holidays” isn’t. I used to think irrational folk interpretations of such expressions were limited to radical feminism until the War on Christmas meme started to float.
Left-wing radicals are of course no better; in fact, they have a tradition of stupidities of this kind going as far back as the 1960s. This is most often manifested in antiracism, the type of left-wing movement that is most prone to radicalization. In 1968, radicals rioted at Columbia largely because it wanted to open a gym in Morningside Park; their problem was that since the Morningside Heights side of the park is higher than the Harlem side, the Harlem entrance would necessarily lead to a lower floor than the Morningside entrance, which was seen as segregationist.
Similar focuses on symbolism over real issues is what led most radical feminists to oppose pornography. Pornography depicts the sort of sex they hate: passionate, brutal, and often very patriarchal. So they immediately assumed it was intimately related to real sexism, no pun intended, and started agitating against it; without that hook, they’d never have even looked at the shoddy studies conservatives pushed that tried linking porn to rape.
As a general rule, the more radical a group is, the likelier it is to push for symbolic changes with no real significance. On Democratic Underground, one poster seriously proposed replacing past Presidents’ faces with civil rights activists’ on the currency. At Yale, a few students have started a website attacking the university for having named colleges after slaveowners in the 1930s. This is over and above the standard symbolic gestures of naming streets after Martin Luther King.
On the right, proclamations that the US is a Christian nation or that Europe must pay heed to its Christian heritage are standard; the more extreme people then push for public recognition of Jesus in every possible circumstance, no matter how tacky or inappropriate.
At the same time, there’s a small minority of radicals who snub that. This is also true in a way of another pathology I’m going to talk about later, totalization. But in both cases, the radicals who don’t display the pathology make up for it by being especially extreme and displaying all other pathologies even more prominently. Radical feminists who consider gender-neutral pronouns to be window dressing also tend to be especially irrational when it comes to any linguistic issue.