Is there such a thing as “the wrong side of history”?
This week as I was perusing my Facebook news-feed the following quote surfaced:
“Humans motivated by lofty ideals are capable of inflicting great suffering with a clear conscience.” – Paul Hollander
The concept intrigued me, but I was immediately curious about the original object of Hollander’s critique. Is he interested in the effects of “lofty ideals” as such, or was there something more particular that he had in mind? I was interested to find that in its original context the quote actually appears with the following prescript, “The failure of Soviet communism confirms that…” Hollander’s whole point comes at the end of a very interesting refection on why, for many in contemporary western society, the dangers and evils of (the historical application of) communism are almost a complete non-issue.
The whole article is worth a read, but my main focus is how unreflectively we tend to use concepts like ideals, and its partner, “progress.”
An ideal is only meaningful if it is located within a value system for which it constitutes the goal, or telos, of the system. It is the greatest good within the system If this ideal is not currently realized, and they hardly ever are, there is also some sort of plan for achieving realization. This plan is also a good thing, within the value system. Third, any movement towards the ideal is, within the system, appropriately labelled “progress.”
All of this is very abstract, but in concrete particulars of history we can see that if a certain value system gains enough traction, enough momentum, the implementation of its plan becomes so ingrained in a society that it becomes part of “the ways things are.” In other words, progress becomes inevitable and progress is good. I think this is (part of) where we get the idea that there is a right and wrong side of history. The right side of history is the inevitable, ever-progressive future. The wrong side is the past, the way things were before we had achieved all this progress. This way of thinking is built into our political systems. The label “progressive” is a powerful rhetorical and psychological tool.
However, all of this can get us into a lot of trouble when we forget that the value system itself must be subject to question, constant critique, and evaluation. When we look back on human history we quickly see that not all forward motion is actually good, and not all historical movements were actually going in the right direction. This remains true even if a particular movement gains so much momentum that it appears to be the unchangeable, inevitable trajectory of change. (Imagine the feeling of powerlessness felt by those living on collective farms in the 1950’s!) Progress is not always a good thing; moving forward can be catastrophic, if you are headed towards a cliff. The “progressive” in such a situation is a suicidal, perhaps even homicidal, maniac.
I doubt that anyone will find anything I’ve said so far very profound. When it’s spelled out in so many words it all seems quite obvious, but the fact that it is so obvious makes it that much easier to forget. When we are speaking about a particular social, moral, or political issue it has become all too common to make an argument that a certain perspective is on the right or wrong side of history, when in reality there really is no such thing. For the pilgrim, for whom there are many potential paths, the future is always a dangerous place. Speaking in terms of a reflection on history, there are some times that the “right” side is behind, and others when it is indeed on the horizon.
History always moves us forward, that is a given. What really counts, however, is whether our values as individuals or as societies are based on a value system that is good, and noble, and true. For the Christian, I believe that we must always be aware of this fact, otherwise it becomes all too easy to become caught up in whatever prevailing wind of “progress” is currently blowing and end up somewhere very far from what is actually desirable.