Sunday, October 9, 2011

The right side of history

I was interested to read in a recent article (here) from the Australian that the phrase 'the right side of history' has been growing in popularity.  For example President Obama has claimed that American foreign policy during the so-called Arab spring is on the 'right side of history'.

I didn't agree with Frank Furedi's analysis of the phenomenon:  this has absolutely nothing to do with a resurgent belief in Fate.  Yet the observation is an interesting one all the same.

When people speak about the 'right side of history' they are using a moral rhetorical device.  They are saying 'I am in the right because history will judge me to have been correct.'   This argument seems to acknowledge that when someone is in the midst of an issue it can be hard to know what is right or wrong, because as history is being made, it is hard to know what to do.  However eventually the benefit of hindsight will bring moral clarity and at some time in the future people will come to a consensus about what was the right decision, and they will be right.  The 'right side of history' is the side which people some time in the future will uphold as correct,

There could also be a more pragmatic view of morality embedded in this rhetorical flourish.  This is the sense that there will be a 'winning' side who will get to write the history, and if you make the right choice now, you will find yourself on that winning side, and those who write history will look more kindly on your contributions and think better of you.

For example, many British people supported Chamberlain's appeasement stance at the time, but 'history' ruled against Chambelain, both in terms of a moral judgement – Chamberlain's 'peace in our time'  slogan came to be destested as a grotesque deception – and because the opposing position represented by Churchill won out politically and militarily.  Appeasement did not win WWII.

As another example, most British politicians at the end of the 18th century supported the slave trade.  This was a popular, mainstream view at the time, but 'history' has rejected it as abhorrent.

The phrase 'the right side of history' seems to presuppose a belief in progress, that people in the future will know best, because they will be morally more enlightened.  It also seems to presuppose that a stable consensual view of history will emerge as the 'correct' one.  Not true.  Historical perspectives shift and things thought admirable in one era will be detested in another. 

The phrase also acknowledges a degree of moral confusion and uncertainty, that people find it hard right now to know what is right and wrong.  Surely moral uncertainty is part of the spirit of our age.  The person who uses the phrase is claiming that despite this uncertainty, their views will win the day.  "Trust me - sometime in the future people will come to see that I did the right thing."

There is, it seems to me,  an element of cowardice and moral surrender in the phrase, with its overtones of 'winner takes all' virtue.  We should not do what is right just because it is right, but only because future generations will find it to be right.  Does this mean that if the Third Reich had won WWII, they would have been on the 'right side of history', and Hitler's genocidal policies would have been judged to have been virtuous?  Is that all that morality consists of  – the judgement of history?

Surely this is a desperate rhetoric, the forlorn cry of a lost and confused generation, without any moral compass of its own, which is desperately scrambling to second-guess the moral judgement of future generations in an attempt to find some point of certainty.    Is this all we are left with as the foundation of morality:  if our grandchildren will only think well of us, all will be well.  Such rhetoric plays on people's fears of being shamed, but that is a hopeless basis for distinguishing right from wrong.