The Wrong Side of History

I’ve been hearing the phrase “the wrong side of history” more and more recently. Those against gay marriage are on the wrong side of history. The Pope is on the wrong side of history. Obama is on the wrong side of history. Conservatives are on the wrong side of history.

I find this argument both bizarre and compelling. It works. It has worked on me, and I’ve used it on others. But why is it so effective? It’s a strange argument when you think about it. Accusing someone of being on the wrong side of history is essentially saying “people in the future will disagree with you.”

It isn’t much of a formal argument. If I tell a Christian that they’re on the wrong side of history concerning gay marriage, I’m not presenting any evidence to suggest that their position is wrong, I’m just saying that on a long enough timeline nobody will agree with them anymore. Well so what?

But I do find that it works. When I think about eating meat, and the current treatment of animals, I can’t help but imagine that I’m on the wrong side of history. It’s hard for me to believe that in the future, when human beings are more enlightened, they’ll continue to shove millions of animals into factory farms and systematically slaughter them for me to eat burgers.

I’m not saying “meat is murder.” But it’s hard to defend the way animals are currently treated in order to make eating meat as prevalent as it currently is.

And for some reason, I find the idea that the future won’t look favorably on me a more compelling reason to do something about factory farms than any other argument.


There are a number of assumptions in the “wrong side of history” argument that are worth examining.

You probably noticed that I emphasized the word “enlightened” above. This is one of the main premises of the argument. The assumption is that people in the future will be better, wiser, more right, more virtuous, than we are now.

Is that a safe bet? I think some people make this assumption by viewing us – in the present – and looking at our own past. We’re better, wiser, more right, and more virtuous than our ancestors. Right? Those people owned slaves. They subjugated women and minorities. They believed in monarchies and rulers, they were warlike and violent, they were savage, they raped and plundered, they believed in ghosts and devils, and they didn’t have the technology we have now or the scientific understanding.

That view of human history is a distinctly progressive one. But conservatives also use the “wrong side of history” argument. (You should note that I’m not using progressive and conservative in their strict ideological sense, but in the broader, social philosophy sense.)

A typical conservative would argue strongly against the idea that we’re better than our ancestors. “Traditional values are what we need,” they would say. “An emphasis on spirituality and the family is what modern society needs, not a headlong rush toward changing everything and everyone.”

In this column, the author makes the argument that President Obama is on the wrong side of history by supporting gay marriage. People in the future will recognize that “marriage between a man and a woman is the best for raising and nurturing of the next generation and building a solid foundation for civilization.” This isn’t because he thinks people in the past were ignorant and wrong; it’s precisely the opposite. Our ancestors were right. The traditional understanding of marriage is the wise one, and our present dabbling in non-traditional marriage is just a temporary deviation from what has always been true. This is something that “every nation, culture and major religious belief system throughout human history has understood” and eventually, we’ll get back to the same conclusions.

You can look at the past and think that humans have been wrong consistently and that eventually the future will prove present-day people wrong, or you can look at the past and think human beings have pretty consistently been right and eventually the future will recognize that and get us back on track.

Either way, the future is where enlightenment lies. That’s our first assumption.

The second assumption is that you can predict it. When you accuse someone of being on the wrong side of history, you’re claiming that A. people in the future will be right and that B. you know what “right” is.

People in the future will be right about gay marriage and that means they will support it, or people in the future will be right about gay marriage and that means they won’t support it. Which is it?

If you’re on the progressive side, you can look at what human history is trending toward and try to extrapolate from that. More and more people are okay with homosexuality, so you can safely assume that people in the future will be even more okay with it.

If you’re on the conservative side, modern trends can’t be trusted. They’re the deviation. But you can assume that eventually humanity will re-stabalize around the things that they’ve always believed. For most of human history homosexuality was not accepted, so that’s the stable state we’re likely to return to.

For those who maintain that there are non-relative moral standards – universal principles – they assume that eventually human beings will accept those moral standards, regardless of what the current trends are and regardless of what we believed in the past. On a long enough timeline, what is good and decent will win out. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

The Future Doesn’t Like You

Whether or not the assumptions are valid, the argument is a compelling one. It works on people. But why? Who cares what people in the future will think of you?

I think there may be a subtle threat of ostracism at play here. Human beings are highly sensitive to their place in society and how they’re perceived by their peers. Ostracism can be really terrifying for people. On some level, the idea that “people in the future would reject you” triggers that fear of ostracism and that pressure to conform.

“You don’t want the tribe to kick you out, right? Well you better get your life together because in a couple years, everybody in the tribe is going to be gay-marrying the shit out of each other. Get used to it.”

Cultures already put a huge emphasis on conforming and fitting in with the status quo. The “wrong side of history argument” just uses a future status quo for the same effect. “Conform with the future, don’t get left behind.”

There also might be an aspect of vanity to this. I know that’s at least partially at play when I think about what the future will value. I want the future to like me. I want my kids and grandkids to look back on me and think “Wow, Will was pretty on the ball with this stuff.” Everybody has the racist grandma or misogynist uncle who is just so far behind the times. Nobody wants to end up being that person. We want future generations to like and respect us.

Is the “wrong side of history” the right argument?

Well, I don’t think you can use it as a proof of any specific position. What the future will think, what the past already thought, and what we currently think are no measure of truth. You can certainly identify trends and track the consequences and outcomes of certain beliefs, which can bolster an existing proof. But as a standalone argument, it’s pretty empty.

I rarely see this argument used alone anyway. It is almost always accompanied by a separate explanation of why the position is right or moral or practical. You would be on shaky ground to do otherwise.

But there are benefits to invoking the future. For one, it triggers us to look a little closer at the long-term consequences of our beliefs. What will the future actually be like? What will people in the future believe? It makes whatever issue is being examined about more than just some in-the-moment political debate.

Attempting to extract yourself from the present, with all its biases, is a noble exercise. We know that so much of what we consider right or wrong, favorable or unfavorable, acceptable or unacceptable is a result of our culture. Our parents, teachers, and politicians all shaped it. The media and our peers all reinforce it.

It’s valuable to set those things aside – as much as we can – and imagine what people without our biases would believe.

What will people in the future – who don’t have any emotional attachment to America or its leaders – think about the US military? What will people in the future – who weren’t raised in a Christian household – think about gay marriage? What will people in the future think about how we treat our environment? Or how we treat our children? Or how we run our societies?

I think the “wrong side of history” argument’s greatest value may be as a tool to help us examine and eliminate our biases.

Published on March 14, 2013