Being On The Wrong Side Of History

You’ll see who’s laughing at the end” and “People who still believe X will soon see themselves on the wrong side of history”.

One hears statements like these quite frequently in debates in recent times. Mostly regarding big political and philosophical debates, this way of arguing is espoused by people of all political persuasions and often deemed a legitimate way of addressing people who disagree with one’s own opinions.

It is, however, a rhetoric device that indicates the lack of a real argument. The person using this construction in a debate seems to say:

Well, you might not agree with me right now, but this is what’s going to happen whether you like it or not, so better change your mind so you’ll be able to still fit into society in a couple of years when everyone will have this opinion.

The argument, or lack thereof, plays on people’s inherent need to be part of the group – or part of the tribe. Nobody wants to be ostracised, so if everyone will think a certain way in a few years, maybe you shouldn’t speak your mind if you disagree. This way of arguing thus tries to enforce a certain authority over acceptable opinions by threatening expulsion from society in the future – it is a shaming technique and nothing more.

Further, stating that one can be on the right side of history in an absolute way, assumes a linear trajectory of societal and human progress. This ignores that people constantly change what is acceptable behaviour: Being on the wrong side of history in 1935 in Hitler Germany, is being firmly on the correct side just a few years later. This does not imply moral relativism though. Rather, people’s collective political ideas of what is “right” change often, which does not mean that what is morally right changes as well.

But what is it that people refer to when they say “history”? How do I know that “history” is here? Who knows, maybe people will change their mind on certain issues again – what then? Also, if I am meant to base my opinion solely on what everyone else is thinking, who comes up with what to think in the first place?

Arguing this way is pointless. History is not certain and the only way to explore what is “right” is through philosophical debate – definitely not through orientation at what everyone else is doing. That might be a good indicator, but certainly no guarantee for doing what is truly “right”.

If you believe in truth or at least think that your argument is correct then it shouldn’t really matter what anyone else thinks or does. Hence, whether you are on the “right side of history” at any point in time, doesn’t really matter for the validity of your opinion.

IF you are right – what others believe does not matter intellectually.

Whether or not society collectively moves on an issue in the way congruent with your argument is inconsequential for the truth contained in it. This means that the reality of what people do politically has little bearing on what is true. Hence, trying to convince people to change their minds on the basis of being on the “right side of history” is an argument based on power, rather than intellectual validity.

In short, “the right side of history” is a bad way of arguing or debating. Argue on the basis of merit of your proposals, not by threatening and shaming people with future retribution. If you have to threaten people for them to accept your opinion or argument you lose the philosophical part of the debate by default.

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