The idea that there is a right and a wrong “side of history” is a common weapon in the rhetorical armory of progressives, as well as totalitarians. It may give hope to the discouraged—as when Martin Luther King Jr. assured followers that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
But, as political theory professor Jacob T. Levy argues, the whole question of what side of history is right or wrong is one of superstition and myth.
“In fact, the very idea that there is a wrong or right side of history has been the moral justification for a variety of historical horrors that were steeped in modernity and technological mastery,” he writes on Vox.com.
The past century was one of war and bloodshed on a massive scale, accompanied by an ideology of inevitability. Communist and Nazis totalitarians confidently asserted that history was on their side and so justified their brutal repression of freedom. Like the Borg in “Star Trek” and like present-day progressives, they demand submission to the inevitable: “Resistance is futile.”
King himself later offered a different perspective on the idea of an arc of history. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he wrote, “Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.”
The problem of discerning and doing the right thing isn’t easy. It is, as Levy says, “an ongoing struggle that every person and every generation faces.
“Ideologies of history as moral progress try to make it easy. They treat some group of us in the present as having clear moral knowledge that was unavailable to the past, and that isn’t shared by everyone in the present, to whom we then get to feel superior. They’re on the wrong side of history! They’re barbaric, medieval, archaic, primitive.”
Present Trends and the Future
It’s tempting to see our present society as the best ever, morally and materially. In psychologist Steven Pinker’s vision, the Enlightenment—an intellectual movement that flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries—was a triumph of reason, science, and progress. We are its heirs and beneficiaries, at the pinnacle of human development, and we need to persist with these trends. Whatever furthers that project is good and progressive. Whatever stands in its way is bad and reactionary.
So today, many liberal secularists such as Pinker celebrate the collapse of religion, driven out by science and reason. Most important among movements advanced by those “on the right side of history” is the sexual revolution, which seems to free people from sexual constraints and licenses a wide range of sexual behavior before, inside, and outside marriage that was previously stigmatized or forbidden. It has transformed morality and custom in much of the world.
It may be obvious to all sides that the sexual revolution has fundamentally undermined traditional morality. But is this destruction of older norms, restraints, and institutions progress and liberation, or decadence and decline? Is it the verdict of history, an unstoppable advance of freedom and equality? Or is it the kind of thing that no society can long sustain, so contrary is it to what is needed for humans to flourish?
Is it a new version of the decline of the Roman Empire, similarly marked by high divorce and abortion and low marriage and birth rates? Or is it rather the dawning of a new age of sexual freedom? Will it be replaced by a stricter moral code from outside forces or by a religious or moral “great revival” within? Or is it really the right side of history and mankind’s future, the arc of history providing its own moral justification?
Many believe that religion is declining in the face of modernity and the rise of science, a trend that is its own moral justification. As the “secularization thesis,” this view was a staple of academics for centuries. Pinker persists in this story of the Enlightenment as the triumph of reason and science over religion, the arc of history bending toward justice. To do so, he has to ignore or downplay the key role of the church in the Middle Ages—its research, teaching, and technological innovation, along with its science-friendly theology of historical discovery and development—in the rise of science and reason.
Pinker, like many Western foreign-policy experts who bought into the secularization thesis, ignores the increasing importance of religion, and not only Islam, in many countries and the overthrow of secularist governments by pro-religious governments in Turkey, Israel, Iran, and elsewhere. True, there has been an increase in declared atheism, rising in the United States to an unprecedented (but still extraordinarily low) 3 percent of the population. The rise in the West of the much larger population of “nones”—those with no organized religious affiliation—signifies not the triumph of reason, science, or atheism but the flowering of myriad non-rational “spiritual but not religious” beliefs and practices.
Pinker convincingly demonstrates that professional doomsayers (such as Paul Ehrlich, who confidently predicted that overpopulation would result in famine and civilizational collapse in the 1970s) are wrong. The world’s people are more numerous and healthier, wealthier, longer-lived, and better fed, housed, and educated than ever before. But he slides from there into a polemic for secular humanism and against Christianity and Islam. He preaches a false understanding of history—the 19th-century view of science as good and religion bad that ignores the actual interaction between the two. He derives from it a moral imperative based on the “right side of history.”
On the Wrong Side of History
Being on the wrong side carries high costs. Whatever the future holds, it seems that “progressives” will continue to hurl the charge of being “on the wrong side of history” at their opponents. Being labeled in this way carries threats and penalties, ranging from the message that people won’t like you or invite you to their parties to exclusion, as historical researcher Ryan Shinkel puts it, “from prestigious jobs, awards, or societies, or—like Brendan Eich—perhaps even the company you helped create.”
As we see increasingly on campuses, Twitter, and even in the mobbing of government officials and their families in public places, “[t]his ‘arc of history’ narrative is used to legitimize the vigilante justice wielded against the bigoted foes of justice,” Shinkel writes in the journal Public Discourse. The pattern of social exclusion, intolerance, and hatred—all in the name of love, equality, kindness, and inclusion—shows no sign of abating any time soon.
Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.