Politicians and political figures endless debate about who will be on “the right side of history.” It can sound important, but it is most often merely a ploy to establish unassailable support for their personal position. They want the support of objective moral truth without all the fuss.
It is another example of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” When Lewis was still a hardened atheist, he dismissed Christianity, not because he had a better explanation for the world around him, but mostly because the belief system was “old.”
His friends who had left atheism behind began to call him out for his bias. Here’s how Lewis described it:
In the first place, he made short work of what I have called my “chronological snobbery,” the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.
Much of what passes for progress, particularly in realm of morality, is merely chronological snobbery. Understanding this uncovers the fact that an appeal to “the right side of history” is essentially an appeal to nothing. The argument assumes it knows the morality of the future and ignores the morality of the past.
The Future & the Past
When we argue that a certain position on the topic du jour – be it same sex marriage, abortion, pornography, etc. – will be on “the right side of history,” we assume the future will agree with moral changes we have made.
But who knows exactly what the philosophical framework of the future will be? They may (and likely will) regard our morality with the same derision we often regard the moral perspective of the past, which is itself another problem with this type of reasoning. Ironically enough, arguments about the right side of history often fails to grant a voice to history itself.
An unknowable future becomes the sole arbiter of the moral convictions of the present because we want to dismiss without argument the beliefs of the past. History is not allowed to speak on current affairs, unless it can serve as the subject of our mocking.
Modern tolerance uses only an imagined future as judge of “history,” but in doing so it robs itself of any wisdom gained previously. There is much to be gained from learning from those who have went before us.
G.K. Chesterton called tradition “the democracy of the dead.” We have exchanged that for a dictatorship of the living.
False god of Progress
But, in some ways, this idea itself is nothing new. Progress has been a false god since time began. Every generation seeks to cast off the shackles of the previous one, but most often it merely trades them for new chains.
Take the issue of personhood for example. Which generation hasn’t wrestled with that? From slavery to the Holocaust to abortion, we continually judge those who went before us while repeating similar mistakes, and most often doing so in the name of progress.
Slavery was to help with economic progress. The Holocaust and the other atrocities of the Nazi regime were thought to lead to genetic progress. Abortion is defended as reproductive progress.
It is cast in those terms because who wants to be the one standing in the way of progress? Who wants to be on the wrong side of history? Thankfully, people have continually ignored such arguments and sought to learn from history instead of worry about what side it may take in the future.
Unless it can be demonstrated that a “right side of history” argument is based on something more solid than the shifting sand of public opinion, I can only assume it is nothing more than chronological snobbery and dismiss it like any other unfounded argument.