I came into the skeptical/freethought/atheist community from an already-establishing, somewhat radical left political perspective. For some time I felt most leaders in the community were simplistic and uncritical in their views of political economy. And they are.
But you know what? We all are. Any honest, skeptical starting point should begin here, acknowledging our own ignorance of the near-infinite complexity that is social life. That’s not to say we can’t understand aspects of social reality, culture, history, psychology, human desires, drives, etc. We can and do. That’s also not to say humanity is powerless in its attempts to make the world a better place in the most non-controversial sense. Science has greatly expanded our knowledge of these things. Life has gotten better for more and more people.
The difficulty comes in interpreting the world. There’s something to be said for philosopher Slavoj Žižek‘s reversal of Marx:“Don’t Act. Just Think.” He’s not recommending silence in the face of injustice. He is recognizing the inherent limits of our answers to society’s problems and that we need to think more deeply before confidently establishing doctrines in our efforts to change the world for the better. Finding answers to how, why, and what to do (politics) is a tremendous undertaking fraught with countless, unforeseen problems having real-world consequences.
For example, in the United States, levels of violence have been dropping since a peak in the early 1990s. In trying to solve the violent crime problem at the time, numerous solutions were undertaken, particularly the “tough on crime” movement of many states and municipalities. So we saw increased incarceration rates and harsher sentencing. Lo and behold, violence levels fell. But they fell regardless of policies implemented. Why? (The tough question.)
Well, there is growing evidence that decreased amounts of lead in the environment may have much to do with lessening rates of violence. If true, this is something all the dominant theories of violence spanning the political spectrum failed to account for and are still largely silent in addressing.
Violence in society is obviously a vast topic. And certainly environmental lead is not the only component. I think we all recognize this truism. But in my opinion, when operating within a limited political framework people tend to privilege one or more interpretation, those which reinforce a pre-existing political outlook, while ignoring or denouncing anything that falls outside their limited interpretive perspective.
Political beliefs tend to ossify and resist alternative explanations. Internally their logic is self-apparent to the believer and should therefore be so to everyone else. But that’s not how the world works, whether one is right or wrong. Critics are correct in warning against dogma when it comes to discussions of politics and economics. Even well-meaning, skeptical, intelligent people can easily slip into a type of moralizing that ultimately demonizes opponents, real or perceived.
Let’s continue, humbly aware of our limits, willing to change even the deepest held beliefs if the evidence takes us there. It’s what we expect of others and we should expect the same of ourselves.