The Problem With the “Wrong Side of History”

Culture cannot stay static for long. New situations, circumstances, and players continually shape the culture and its overall direction. For better or worse, culture progresses toward an unknown future. The past 10 to 15 years have seen massive culture shifts that changed the shape and contours of society. For every movement in one direction, there has been a counter-movement pushing in the opposite direction. And yet, those pushing an ever more progressive agenda have argued that those embracing the counter-movement stand on the “wrong side of history.”

This claim is both presumptuous and unknowable. For someone to assert that the know how history will assess a movement in retrospect is to make a claim of omniscience, a claim that no human can claim to themselves. In reality, those making this claim are merely reading the current direction of the culture and extrapolating to some desired end state. We should be careful about this type of claim because what may be popular in one period may be looked upon with extreme remorse by coming generations. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao could have made this argument as they rose to power, and yet we all look back at those periods of history with great remorse and disdain.

These historical examples highlight the reality that we do not ultimately know that the side that wins in the short term will win finally. Moreover, just because one wins does not make the argument right. With “the wrong side of history” claim, we cut off the discussion of ideas. And, let’s face it, it is often used in the most brute of forms, a trump card to end debate or silence an opponent. Such a move is unhelpful and does not move society or culture in a better direction. Ideas are best when they engage other ideas and go through the demanding task of evaluation and critical examination. When we allow this sort of statement to short-circuit this process society is left with anemic ideas claiming the right to win with no firm foundation.

Most dangerously isn’t an actual argument. It is nothing more than a clever dodge. Arguments engage ideas and seek both to understand and to engage issues. The argument for inevitability leaves issues or right and wrong, good and bad unanswered. Just because something is inevitable does not mean that it is good. Saying a particular position is on “the wrong side of history” is much like children on the playground yelling at one another that the other is wrong.

How should Christians respond to the charge of being on the wrong side of history? Perhaps the best way is simply to ask questions. “How do you know that your position is the right side of history?” “How do you know that future generations will have the same opinion of this movement as you do?” “What makes your position right while another is wrong?” Since the “wrong side of history” argument is a tool to stifle thoughtful dialog, asking questions is an attempt to revive the debate. Questions like these force people to think once again and engage the topic thoughtfully rather than dismissively defaulting to a non-argument, argument.

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