It’s time to take a closer look at a phrase you’re probably tired of hearing by now. Words and phrases come into and go out of style just like everything else. I remember when Devo and Spandau Ballet were tearing up the FM airwaves. In recent years there has been a surge in popularity for the phrase “on the wrong side of history.” An article at the end of 2013 claimed that this “rhetorical two-step,” as it called it, has seen a statistical swell across published articles. It cites the Yale Book of Quotations, which counted 524 articles in 2006 in which the phrase was used, compared with 1,800 articles featuring it in 2013.
So it’s all the rage, but what does it mean? If you didn’t know any better, you might think that it means going against history or disagreeing with those who went before us. But of course that is not what those who use the phrase are wanting to say. But let us examine briefly both possibilities. Let’s ask first about being on the wrong side of history as we now consider it (i.e., that which in our past), and then let’s look at being on the wrong side of what will someday be history (i.e., that which is in our future).
On the Wrong Side of What We NOW Call “History”
History is that which is in the past, quite obviously, so the most literal understanding of the phrase “on the wrong side of history” would be just what it sounds like: to be on the wrong side of history, in this sense, is to hold a belief or position that goes against what those in the past believed or held. Knowing as we do the general thought-patterns of our own culture, we might reasonably ask whether the dominant perspective represented in pop culture, media and entertainment finds agreement with the majority of significant voices from our history.
And it would not require a lot of reading from history to come quickly to the conclusion that nearly nobody from the generations of the past would find agreement with leading contemporary social and political voices in the Western world. History is a long tale full of clues about how our present culture came to look, speak, think, and act the way it does. If you familiarize yourself with the story you will come to see that the contemporary notions Americans have about religion, ethics and politics are mostly novelties, appearing just a few ‘chapters’ ago.
Historical ignorance and the move away from traditional religious and moral beliefs are undoubtedly tied together. “History is a hill or a high point,” wrote G. K. Chesterton, “from which alone men see the town in which they are living and the age in which they live.” So many today are confused and lack perspective because they have no vantage point from which to see their own tiny plot of time and place. To borrow the analogy from James the Apostle, we never look into the mirror that would show us a more accurate reflection of ourselves and our surroundings.
Reading the words or biographies of prominent people from our past would likely shock – and maybe offend – many contemporary fans of the “progressive” left. A lot of young people who encounter the voices of the past while reading for college courses are given to the foolish habit of rejecting them with a knee-jerk reaction that assumes that everyone who lived before iphones was backward and just didn’t get it. In most cases they read just enough to condemn everyone in history of being ignorant, racist, puritanical religious nuts. This childish view of history says more about our own culture than any of those from the past. We’ve become too inept even to know how to process the predominant ways of thinking of those in our history. “To be ignorant of the past is to remain a child,” wrote Cicero, and he had so much less history from which to learn than we do all of these centuries later. Our confusion is of our own making. We have libraries of brilliant teachers to tutor us, but we’d rather get our wisdom from our peers, from Hollywood, from jaded comedians, or from the twittersphere, all within 140 characters.
I challenge anyone to begin reading biographies of the American founders, and see how long it takes to start re-adjusting everything that you thought you knew about the moral and political debates of our time. For all of the specific and distinct differences between them, they all seem to have shared a general worldview that many young voters today would hardly recognize. As far as I can tell, none of them – to a man – could get elected to any office today with the views they expressed in their writings and speeches.
Poor Washington, Adams, Jay, Hamilton, Jefferson & Madison, if they discovered a time machine & visited us today, would find themselves in a bizarro-world of contemporary political correctness, and they would quickly find that instead of principled disagreement and substantive debate, our present political culture would offer them only petty mockery and slander for their views. They would be castigated as right-wing religious wackos. They would be called war-mongers, too vicious toward criminals, way too accommodating toward churches and religious organizations, not nearly compassionate enough with the government spending, and generally too uptight. Their views of marriage and family would elicit angry, sarcastic laughter from the entertainment community. They would feel like the guy from the movie “Idiocracy” after he woke up from a few hundred years of cryosleep to a society steadily degraded in every way to the point of being completely debased morons.
My point is that the literal understanding of the phrase “on the wrong side of history” would not suit those are most fond of the phrase. Since they tend to lean leftward toward modern p.c. sensibilities, they would be horrified to discover just how far on the wrong side of our history they have placed themselves.
On the Wrong Side of What FUTURE Generations Will Call “History”
This second understanding of the phrase “on the wrong side of history” is what most people actually mean to suggest when they use it. They mean to say that the present direction and flow of ideas and events points one way (typically “my” way), and those of you who disagree are simply moving in the other direction – away from the direction that things appear to be headed. It is as if the current of the cultural river is moving along, and a few traditionalists uncomfortable with its direction are trying to turn back against it. The implied argument is that, first, the traditionalist is in denial regarding the way things are actually going, and second, the deniers are impeding the forward progress of things and hindering the natural flow of history toward what we have discerned is its destination.
So again I ask: Is this a fair charge by those who are pushing society away from the traditions of the past? Will people in future generations look back with shame at those who were not on board with direction that cultural progressives are moving society at the present moment?
Keep in mind first that this understanding of “history” (the present time that will be considered history to future generations) differs from actual “history” (the times that preceded the present) in one very important sense: actual history has already happened and is thus set, whereas the imagined history as future people will see it is sheer guesswork. In other words, when asking whether you’re on the wrong side of actual history, you at least can address the question to events that are final and cannot change. The thoughts, beliefs, and deeds of the people before us already happened. But asking whether you’re on the wrong side of what future generations will think, believe, and do is a presumptuous (and usually self-serving) leap.
And not only are those who use this phrase over-estimating their knowledge of what the mindset and beliefs of people in future generations will actually be, they are being equally presumptuous that those supposed beliefs of future people are correct beliefs. Either they invest way too much confidence in the superior wisdom of people yet to be born (which may involve the ridiculous idea that we will ‘evolve’ over a couple of generations), or they have a mystical view of history’s unfolding that places faith in the inevitable move upward toward utopia (something akin to the views of men like Hegel or Marx).
Because of all of this, when I hear someone respond to an opponent in a debate over a heated moral or political topic with “You’re on the wrong side of history,” (assuming that the person means it in this second, most likely sense) II immediately want to ask two questions of that person: (1) How do you presume to know the collective mindset of millions of people yet to exist? And (2) even if you are right about their views, so what? What makes them any more correct than anyone living now or in the past?
What I think is really going on when people use this phrase is that they are hoping that the idea of being “on the wrong side of history” will register some kind of negative feeling that puts pressure on those who disagree with them to change their point of view. It is a rhetorical ploy. Instead of a legitimate argument, it is a personal pressure strategy. The opponent is supposed to have a sense that he or she is, after all, on the “wrong” side and therefore should change. It is by no means a new tactic. In 1960 the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was so confident in the Marxist view of history in which the superiority of communism was set inevitably to overthrow capitalism that he told his opponents with full swagger, “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side.”
The real issue: Are you on the right or wrong side of the TRUTH?
In an age of social media group-think and public cowardice this may sound revolutionary, but it’s high time people today muster up enough common sense and courage to say, “I don’t care what people think or say.” Only someone willing to think outside of the narrow parameters of the immediate culture’s myopic perspective can have any hope of arriving at sensible conclusions on important questions.
We seem to care so little about the wisdom of all of the generations of the past, why then concern ourselves so anxiously about the projected opinions of the generations of the future? I submit that if those who are so fond of declaring who will (in the future) end up on the wrong side of history would themselves learn some actual history, they might gain just enough insight to realize that they don’t know what they’re talking about, which may just be the golden key of truth that opens the gates of wisdom for them.
All of those who have gone before were flawed and limited just like we are. They weren’t omniscient. In plenty of cases we are confident to call certain of their opinions wrong. But that isn’t the point. As the Chesterton quote in the previous section indicates, the point of hearing the views of people outside of your time and place is that they may help you see outside of your own immediate influences and biases. Or as Tim Keller has famously put it, “”When you read one thinker, you become a clone. Two thinkers, you become confused. Ten thinkers, you begin developing your own voice. Two or three hundred thinkers, you become wise.” We could elaborate this to say that when you are completely submersed in one specific culture, you are a clone of that culture. You have to hear the contradictory opinions of people outside your echo chamber.
Truth should carry more weight than the shared feelings or passing opinions of a given majority within a single subculture. The mistake of the dominant media and entertainment culture of the present moment is that it arrogantly and immaturely allows itself to suppose that its current views on religious, moral and political issues are so obviously right that opposing views need not be seriously considered. No time need be wasted, they seem to be saying among themselves, on making legitimate arguments for our current views or engaging with dissenting opinions. Instead we can just ride the wave of our own subjective confidence and attempt to put pressure on our critics to get on our bandwagon and at least pretend to agree with us. And one of the ways we can try to apply such pressure is to taunt them with “You’re on the wrong side of history.”
Clint Roberts has taught Philosophy, Religion, Ethics, Critical Thinking, Apologetics, and a few less interesting subjects over the last decade or so. He likes the Credo House because he once launched a similar non-profit establishment in a different state. His Masters is from a fine theological institution and his doctorate focused on famed arguments by Clive Staples Lewis. He and Wanda lived in Texas a little while, then Idaho very briefly, then Salt Lake City for several years prior to coming to the prairie lands of Oklahoma. They had four kids along the way, and later adopted two more humans, a few goats and chickens, and a pony.