Yes indeed, here we are! Axiometry! Looking at commonly used sayings, axioms, and bits of conventional wisdom to see if there really is any wisdom in them . . . or if they’re just full of wis.
. . .
Okay, that one was a bit of a stretch, I know.
Today’s subject is a relatively new one, or one that we hear incessantly, especially in the incessantly obnoxious world of politics. I am, of course, talking about the expression–the very idea–of being on the right side of history.
Okay, I kind of tipped my hand there, but let’s be fair: As always, I’ll be subjecting this cultural shibboleth to the same low-budget quasi-legalistic analysis that I test all of my axioms with. Hence the completely made-up neologism Axiometry,
(Technically it’s a portmanteau, I guess, but who cares).
Here we go!
History is not a thing, at least not in the tangible sense. According to our good friends in the dictionary business, history is–and I quote–“a chronological record of significant events (such as those affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes.”
But leaving that aside, assuming that a human being knows what the “right side” is is arrogant and narcissistic in the extreme. Remember, folks, there are two types of people in this world:
- Those with objective standards of good and bad, right and wrong, moral and immoral (these people are usually, but not always, religious); and
- People to whom everything is relative, and “good” and “bad” merely reflect what society thinks is good or bad at any given time.
Whichever one you are goes a long way to determining whether you think there is a “right side of history.”
Look: A “right side of history” is not the same thing as an objective good. It’s nothing more than an attempt to shut the other side of a debate down by assuming that you KNOW the answer with mathematical certainty, and that anyone who disagrees with you is not only wrong, but evil.
Think about William Wilberforce, the British politician of the late-18th/early-19th centuries who was largely responsible for ending the slave trade in England. Everyone else in England probably thought that they were on the right side of history. But Wilberforce was like, “Nah. See, my God says that slavery is immoral and sinful and I’m going to do whatever it takes to stamp it out.” I’m paraphrasing, but you get my gist.
Did Wilberforce claim to be on the “right side of history”? Not to my knowledge. He was a Christian, and that was enough for him. Slavery was immoral no matter the time period it was practiced in. If in the year 3,065, when we’re all speaking paramecium language and slavery is reinstituted by our alien/robot overlords, it won’t magically become “good” because it’s in the future.
In other words, this axiom and the ideas it embodies fail because it assumes that anything in THE FUTURE is de facto GOOD.
You know who else thought and currently thinks like this? The Nazis and the Marxists.
We have a technical term for that in philosophy: bullshit.
But what about William Wilberforce, right? If you’re going to use slavery as an example, how can you deny that he wasn’t on “the right side of history”?
The winners write history, yes. But can you imagine anyone saying that Wilberforce was wrong to deny slavery with every fiber of his being–fibre, sorry. Gotta respect his Britishness.
And why focus on England? What about slavery in America? Times change, and people evolve and adapt to new ideas and beliefs. The institution of slavery could not stand. We fought a bloody Civil War over it! And everybody knew it would happen eventually because slavery was wrong. It might have been good in antiquity, but everything changes.
Societies and the people in them evolve into something better over time. This cannot be denied. The United States used to be brutal to blacks, gays–hell, anyone who wasn’t a straight white Christian. Women weren’t even able to vote until the early 1900s, for crying out loud!
These agitations for greater rights don’t just happen in a vacuum. They happen because human beings learn how to live with each other and their thinking progresses towards an ultimate good. Did not the bloody world wars of the 20th century give way to the relative peace in Europe and North America and much of Asia and South America and certain parts of Africa? Are not the places where we see constant warfare and strife, oppression and hatred, places where the societies and cultures have not evolved?
The answer is “Yes.” Yes, there is a “right side of history.” Certain beliefs and practices become outmoded for a reason: Because they are wrong. Someday humanity will get to the point where there will be relative peace worldwide . . . because most people will want it.
Looking over the arguments, this one isn’t as clear-cut as previously thought. But I can’t help find the view that there is a right side of history hopelessly naive and woefully ignorant of human nature.
If you think human beings are evolving into something “kinder and gentler,” you’re delusional. I’m sorry. We are what we are–flawed, fallen beings–and we do best when we recognize this fact and mitigate against it rather than pretend we can engineer ourselves to some kind of utopia. Contra Belinda Carlisle, Heaven is not a place on Earth.
By the way, let’s take a minute to celebrate the totally babealicious Belinda Carlisle:
No joke, I unironically love that song.
Anyway, my point is that progress doesn’t always equate to progress towards something good. Using the slavery example, slavery could return tomorrow in the blink of an eye. In fact, slavery still exists on Earth.
There are arguably fewer wars of the scale of World War I and World War II, sure. But what wars we have are still costly, and the roots of these conflicts–differences in religion, political systems, and so on–are as omnipresent as they ever were.
Are we really getting “kinder and gentler”? Will we really be on “the right side of history”?
What arrogance to assume we know this for a fact!
This whole argument, as stated before, is a way to get your opponents to shut up and fall in line. EVERYTHING is turned into “the right side of history.”
It’s utopianism, that’s what it is. And like many things with nice-sounding names, the nice-sounding name is there to distract you from the fact that it leads to a lot of death and destruction.
Have your objective standards and measure actions against them. That’s how you know if you’re on any right side or not, society be damned.
And remember: not all standards are good. But figuring out which ones are the right ones is a whole other debate, one that’s been raging since the dawn of human civilization.
But note well that the answer won’t be, “Because we’re smarter and better people than those idiots who lived in the past.”
Final Recommendation: This one is just dumb. Avoid like the plague.