Which is the wrong side of the round table?

Oliver Burkeman points out that we can’t actually know what “the right side of history” is going to be.

Earlier this month, as the bundle of disordered impulses currently serving as president of the US prepared to fly to London, the city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, argued in this newspaper that the visit would put Britain on “the wrong side of history”. I tend to agree the trip shouldn’t have happened, if only to guard against the risk of a national cheeseburger shortage, but it’s time we dropped that “wrong side of history” argument. Like the crevice down the back of a sofa, full of coins and old bits of Play-Doh, the Wrong Side of History has become a crowded place in recent years. Among those consigned to it have been Brexiteers, anti-vaxxers, vaccine proponents, feminists who don’t accept the idea of gender as an innate essence, the leftwing Somali-American politician Ilhan Omar, and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Owen Jones is one who is fond of locating feminists on the wrong side of history. If it turns out to be OJ who is on the wrong side in say 30 years (assuming there’s any history left on a baking planet), I hope he’s fully aware of it…but doubt he will be.

Appealing to the judgment of history involves consulting a bunch of imaginary people from the future, so it’s hardly a surprise when they turn out to agree with whoever is doing the consulting.

In other words it’s a laughably easy claim to make, because who can demonstrate that you’re wrong?

The real hazard, though, comes when the idea is used by contemporary pontificators to avoid confronting the possibility that they, themselves, might be wrong. Once you’re confident of history’s position, you needn’t ask whether your critics might have a point; you can dismiss them as anachronistic fuddy-duddies who haven’t caught up with the latest advance toward moral truth. The irony is that it is a good idea to reflect on the judgment of history – not to reinforce your opinions, but rather to unsettle them, and infuse them with a dose of humility. The past is full of periods when people endorsed ridiculous or horrifying views, but they evidently didn’t think so at the time. Why should any of us be immune, just because our time happens to be now?

The not thinking so at the time is permanently interesting to me. Slavery, in particular, is always a nagging open question – how was it possible, how was it possible for so long in a nation that bragged about its own love of liberty and rights. Samuel Johnson pointed out that discrepancy crisply:  “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” He wasn’t keen on yelps for liberty himself, but all the same he wasn’t wrong about the mismatch.

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