The Wrong Side of History: Rhetoric, Social Change, and Predicting the Future

Lately, it seems like a lot of people are “on the wrong side of history.”  You’ve probably heard it used by supporters of same-sex marriage, although it’s also used on other occasions (President Obama used it in his Inaugural Address as a warning to dictatorial regimes).  If you Google the phrase, you’ll find that it’s become a talking point for gay rights advocates and one renegade Fox News contributor.  And why not?  It’s a strikingly dramatic pronouncement.  It sounds great in a soundbite or press release.  It contains echoes of a beautiful phrase from Martin Luther King, Jr.  But what exactly does it mean?  And is it true?

What “history” means in this phrase is “future public opinion”–with a hope that the future isn’t too far away.  One way of using this phrase is defensive.  It’s what you can say after another crushing defeat for something you care deeply about: your opponents are “on the wrong side of history.”  It combines a smugness about being right with a confidence that the rest of the world will inevitably recognize your rightness.  For example, last week, after Scott Walker’s victory in the Wisconsin recall election, a friend of a friend used the phrase to describe anti-labor Wisconsin voters (more on this later).  There may be something comforting about this, although the comfort is often (as in this case) ice cold.

But being on the wrong side of history is also, ideally, motivational.  The phrase can also be used as an argument that someone should change his or her opinions because those opinions are about to become (soon, perhaps) very unpopular.  When you use this phrase on your elderly homophobic relatives (as Lindy West suggests, in so many words), you’re essentially telling grandma that her grandkids are going to remember her as a bigot.  When Shep Smith warns that Republicans might be on the wrong side of history on same-sex marriage, he’s suggesting that they are going to start losing elections.  And when gay rights spokespeople use this phrase in press releases, they are trying to convince mild homophobes that they should hop on the bandwagon now.  Same-sex marriage will soon be inevitable, haters, so embrace it now before you look totally uncool!  It’s like peer pressure from the future.

Does it work?  The effectiveness of this rhetorical appeal depends, of course, on whether you care about the future.  I suspect there are plenty of elderly homophobes who don’t give a damn what their children or grandchildren think (I’m looking at you, Dad).  It also depends, I would suggest, on just how soon the future is going to get here.  I might care what my (hypothetical, thank goodness) grandchildren think of me, but I am pretty certain I don’t care what their grandchildren think.  Those brats would hate me regardless and probably for a bunch of reasons that would never even occur to me now.  So there’s maybe only a fifty or one hundred year window of care here–anything beyond that is too remote for me to even worry about.  And indeed, even trying to think about the very distant future is probably a complete waste of time.  As a friend of mine recently noted on Facebook, once you get beyond a certain window of time, prediction is so meaningless as to be a pointless exercise (imagine asking a paleolithic nomad to predict what life would look like in 2012).

Then there’s the whole Second Coming issue.  Not everyone in this country is working with the same idea of “the future” and this determines the rhetorical utility of the phrase.  Right now, during our own Renaissance of Stupidity, 41% of Americans believe that Christ will return by 2050.  And anyone who believes that history is going to end with a fiery drop-in from Jesus has has a pretty specific idea of what the right side of history looks like (hint: it doesn’t include Ellen and Portia).  Go ahead: try telling Pat Robertson that he’s on the wrong side of history.  It will be the most amusing thing he’s heard today (unless there’s been a natural disaster).

But all these qualifications aside, I am willing to believe that–for some issues, like same-sex marriage–the whole “wrong side of history” argument might sway a few votes.  I suppose it’s worth a try.  After all, Americans love a winner.

The problem I have with this phrase, though, is that it makes certain kinds of progress seem inevitable, while ignoring the fact that “progress” is always uncertain and can be (and often is) undone.  For example, it seems absolutely perverse to claim that the union-busting voters in Wisconsin are on “the wrong side of history”, because–barring some sort of event (and I mean that word in a vaguely theoretical sense of, more or less, a miracle)–mass unionization is not returning to the US anytime in the distant future.  What makes the this example even more troubling is that it is possible to imagine a historical moment (say, 1950) where it would have seemed absolutely reasonable to believe that mass unionization was where US history was heading.  But the right side of history never showed up.  So why should we ever expect it to?

And what if the right side of history does show up?  Well, the problem is that it doesn’t always stick around.  Think about American attitudes toward abortion.  In the mid-90s, I would have considered it safe to say that pro-choice was the right side of history and that the right side had arrived.  But then a funny thing happened: attacks on abortion rights ramped up, Americans grew complacent, and the Right became resurgent.  And by the end of the first decade of this century, support for abortion rights had eroded significantly–such that a majority of the public no longer identifies as “pro-choice.”  It should come as no surprise that in this climate, restrictions on abortion that would have been unthinkable two decades ago are now depressingly commonplace.  So which side of history is the “wrong side” now?  I’m not sure it’s so obvious anymore.

This is why I’m reluctant to apply the “wrong side of history” to same-sex marriage.  It may look like a sure thing–after all, young people support it and all those elderly homophobes can’t live forever.  But is it a sure thing?  Not necessarily.  As troglodyte apologist Ross Douthat triumphantly crows:

while the increase in public support for same-sex marriage over the last two decades has been astonishingly swift, it has not been irreversible. Instead, sudden bursts of legal momentum – mostly driven by judicial rulings, from Massachusetts to Iowa – have often prompted temporary backlashes. In Gallup’s polling, support for same-sex marriage rose from 35 percent to 42 percent between 1999 and 2004, but then dropped back to 37 percent; it rose to 46 percent just before Obama’s 2008 victory, but then dropped back to 40 percent a year later. Today’s 50 percent support likewise represents a slight drop-off from the high of 53 percent in the survey Gallup conducted last year.

And while Douthat is both 1. strongly invested in one side and 2. ugly, we shouldn’t ignore his warning.  It is indeed possible for public opinion to change–or to be changed.  While it does seem likely that the temporary shifts that Douthat refers to will be overwhelmed by a generational shift in opinion as time goes on, even generational shifts in opinion can be reversed.  There are undoubtedly conditions under which young people could be made more homophobic and we know there are well-funded groups who are trying to discover those very conditions.  Oh look, here’s one strategy now.

All of this is not to say that meaningful social change does not happen.  It does.  There are many issues (e.g., interracial marriage) that were once controversial and that now seem settled for the foreseeable future.  But this didn’t have to be the case.  And while it is easy to see the “inevitability” of certain social change in retrospect, we should remember that it is much harder to predict.

I don’t want to be too censorious of activists who believe in the “right side of history” and who use the phrase.  Rhetoric has its uses and wishful thinking its comforts.  But I also want to hold open a place for thoughtful reluctance.  We should be reluctant about speaking of desirable social change as inevitable or as something that we can foresee.  We should be equally reluctant to think that, once achieved, social change is permanent.  And if we take seriously these caveats, I wonder, in what ways might this show up in our activism?  What would an activism look like that resists predicting the future and that acknowledges the significant uncertainty of any social intervention?  I think these are questions worth considering.

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