Creaky ideas behind a banal catchphrase

Ask a group of typical North American teens to name their least favourite school subject, and chances are that history will be at or near the top of the list. The same result would likely hold for a representative sample of adults, as well.

In fact, it’s not unfair to say that our culture is ahistorical. We’re absorbed with present concerns and future prospects. But history? To paraphrase a common sentiment, “History is about dead people who fought wars and did stuff that has nothing to do with us. So who cares?”

Granted, these are broad strokes. But given our relative lack of interest in studying history, it’s ironic how obsessed we’ve gotten with being on the right side of it.

Everything old is . . . still old (again)

The concept of a right or wrong side of history isn’t a new one. The expression has been around for the better part of a century, the philosophy behind it longer than that, mostly in academic discussions about political theory. But it’s only in the last few years that the idea has gained popular currency and become a catchphrase, getting bandied about by everyone from social media pundits to celebrities at award shows to the former president of the United States.

All the cool kids are doing it

Despite its many popular uses, the slogan always serves the same basic function. It’s meant to legitimize a currently fashionable view (most commonly in the area of sexual ethics) and to condemn those who disagree with that view. Essentially it’s a verbal bullying tactic, a rhetorical stick with which to beat all dissenting opinion into silence.

Here’s how it works: Everyone who agrees with the particular view in question is portrayed as intelligent and enlightened, and therefore on the right side of history. Conversely, those who disagree are ignorant, out of touch, and (naturally) on the wrong side of history. Best if they would just keep quiet and disappear into the past.

History isn’t really “a thing”

The fundamental problem behind this line of reasoning is that it treats history like a living thing. The underlying assumption is that history is some sort of ineffable force, marching with purpose along the road of human progress toward a future utopia. The idea comes from Hegel, who saw history as a dialectical process of opposing ideas moving toward an ultimate resolution. This was taken up and channelled by Karl Marx into his vision of a communist paradise.

In any event, “the right side of history” boils down to a secular quest for meaning without divine agency. It’s like saying that God is on our side, except without God. The problem lies in the fact that history doesn’t have a will of its own. As such, it’s merely a pattern of human actions and their consequences, whether on an individual or societal scale. It can have no ultimate goal outside of an ultimate mind directing it, no wrong or right side without an absolute standard for right and wrong.

Mistaking apples for oranges

Without such a standard, chasing the right side of history becomes a subjective game of comparing past events with present, and drawing unwarranted parallels between them. For example, our culture has rightly come to view racial segregation and the marginalization of women as evil practices. In truth, such a realization flows from the fact that every person has equal value as a human being made in God’s image. An individual’s physical gender and skin tone are immutable facets of who they are. Such characteristics have no moral dimensions one way or another. They simply reflect the variety in God’s creation, a true cause for celebrating diversity in the best sense.

But sexual behaviour, as another example, is an entirely different kind of human trait. It involves preference and choice, making it a subjective issue with undeniable moral implications. And unlike a person’s ethnicity or biological gender, their moral choices invite potential criticism, while in no way implying hatred or rejection of the person making those choices.

Nevertheless, it has become common practice to equate all of these human traits. This is done so that a direct line may be drawn from the women’s and civil rights movements of the past to the LGBTQ rights movements of the present. Even though the issues at hand are profoundly different, they’re treated as interchangeable points along the progressive march of human history.

We have arrived . . .

Almost invariably, such a pursuit of the right side of history leads to a dangerous sense of historical arrogance. After all, when we look to our forebears, we can note that they practiced slavery. They didn’t allow women to own property, to attend university, or to vote. They forced children to do hard labour in factories and mines. They believed that certain races were inherently superior to others.

But eventually we came to recognize the error of those ways. We rejected them, moved beyond them. And from that vantage point, it becomes deceptively easy to see ourselves as more advanced, as culturally superior to those who came before. We begin to assume that our own generation’s beliefs and values are intrinsically correct, or at least more so than those of our predecessors.

In the process, we conveniently forget that our predecessors felt the same about themselves and their own predecessors. They also viewed their own culture as the pinnacle of history up to that point. Dictators such as Stalin, Hitler and Mao Zedong felt they were on the right side of history as well. So did scientists in the early 20th century who promoted the racist theory of eugenics and advocated the enforced sterilization of minorities, the poor and the disabled.

Tim Keller once observed that it’s tempting to look back at our parents and grandparents, and shake our heads at some of the things they thought and did. But when we do so, Keller advised, we need to keep in mind that our own children and grandchildren will also likely shake their heads when they look back at us.

Trying to stare into the sun

There’s an old adage that says we can see everything clearly by the light of the sun, but if we try looking directly at it, we’ll go blind. History is the same. We can study the past, appreciate its triumphs and learn from its mistakes. However, if we turn within ourselves and try to judge our own place in history, it’s almost inevitable that our perception will be distorted and our conclusions incorrect. Such judgments are best left to those who come after us.

Then again, history really is “a thing”

The ancient Greeks believed that history was governed by fate, personified as three sisters, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos. Clotho spun the thread of our lives, Lachesis measured it out, and Atropos, whose name means “she who cannot be turned,” cut it. Even the gods were subject to the fates; nothing and no one could escape their destiny.

Modern thinkers such as Marx and Hegel have refined this harsh determinism, portraying history as a dialectic river, winding its way toward a utopian promised land. It’s an idea that has captured the Western secular mind and continues to bear its fruit, for good or ill, in the arena of public opinion.

But as a realistic explanation of history, it’s no more viable than the notion of three women working at a loom, weaving the thread of fate. History isn’t an impersonal force that somehow aims at a goal and defines its own sense of right and wrong. Moreover, we’re not puppets bobbing along in its currents, trying to align ourselves with its most correct channel.

God designed us to be volitional creatures who make real decisions with real consequences. At the same time, He so directs the entire course of events that all of those decisions and their consequences ultimately serve His purposes.

In its essence, history is the unfolding of God’s plans, from the creation of the world, to the fall of humanity, to the redemption accomplished by Christ at the cross, to the final restoration of all things in the new heaven and new earth.

And in the end, it’s only those who submit to God through faith in His Son who will find themselves on the right side of history.

© 2016 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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