Which Way?

Everybody wants to be on “the right side of history.”

But here in the real world (what’s left of it), it is hard to tell in the moment which “side” will be viewed by our posterity as having been the “right side.” Humans are fallible. We misjudge. We misunderstand. We choose wrongly, and then we often persist in our wrongness. So when somebody says that you should adopt a particular political or moral position so that you can be on the “right side of history,” you should not follow them blindly. Sometimes they will be right. More often, they will be wrong.

Adding even more complexity is the fact that something can seem to be on an inexorable track toward “rightness” when it isn’t.

When the ancient Roman Empire was in its prime, I’m sure that many argued that Roman paganism, Roman law, and Roman imperialism would rule indefinitely. One can easily imagine a Roman governor telling early Christians that their weird little religious sect was obviously on the “wrong side of history,” especially with its counter-cultural ideas about love for God and neighbor, the sanctity of life, moral living, and sexual ethics. And yet history has shown that Christianity was, in fact, on the “right side” and pagan Rome, aside from some of its early republican ideals, was not. (Some are working tirelessly to rewrite and distort this bit of history.)

More recently, lots of smart and talented people in the early twentieth century thought that the future of humanity was organized, selective breeding. People with desirable traits would be encouraged to have many children, and people with undesirable traits would be discouraged—or forcibly sterilized—so they would not pollute the gene pool and interfere with human progress. This movement was called eugenics. The starkly utilitarian worldview of the eugenics movement was, for a time, broadly thought to be on the “right side of history.” But, predictably, its advocates were soon declaring that their race, ethnicity, class, or religion was desirable and others were not. The eugenics movement was one of the early influences on the Nazis in Germany, who soon took these ideas to their horrific, but logical, conclusion.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the eugenics movement fractured and lost much of its luster, mostly because of its obvious connections with Naziism. But some of its ideas lingered. Some U.S. states were still forcibly sterilizing the mentally ill for decades after eugenics had left the mainstream. And some organizations built upon eugenic principles, most notably Planned Parenthood, publicly distance themselves from the movement while still quietly working to implement its goals. They cannot use force, so instead they use persuasion and fear to convince those they consider undesirable—racial minorities, the poor, the uneducated, the unemployed—to avoid having children, or to kill their children when they are already conceived.

We know (or should know) that eugenics is not on the “right side of history,” even though it has not yet been completely eradicated. But for a while, it sure seemed like it might be. And it may yet make a resurgence; to paraphrase George Santayana, “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” But in the first decades of the twentieth century, it would have been difficult for anybody to assert with any authority how the eugenics movement would play out and how it would be judged by future generations.

Sometimes we can make some guesses. As a general rule, ideas that lead to greater respect for the life and liberty of more people, ideas in alignment with natural law, and ideas that tend toward peace and nonviolence are those that are viewed more favorably by future generations. Ideas that lead to a lessened or narrow respect for life and liberty, violate natural law, or tend toward violence and bloodshed are those that are viewed less favorably. But only in rare instances where all of these factors align strongly should you feel confident making any kind of prediction, and, even then, there’s a good chance that you will be outnumbered by very confident people making the opposite, and wrong, assertion.

Declaring something to be on the “right side of history” or the “wrong side of history” has been fairly effective as a rhetorical technique because it is an assertion that cannot be answered. It ends the debate without actually settling anything. It cannot be proved or disproved until decades or even centuries have passed, and even then it is often still debatable. If I tell you that low-carb diets are on the “wrong side of history” (they are!), you can’t prove me wrong. All you can say is, “Nuh uh!” And neither of us has added anything of value to any debate about carbohydrates.

So remember this when you employ this technique. Oh yes, it may end the debate to say that your opponent is on the “wrong side of history.” But It does not win it.