Does history have a “right side”?

The phrase “the right side of history” has been tossed around a lot recently. It’s been used most recently in the debate surrounding same-sex marriage and in relation to domestic violence issues.

Senator Richard Blumenthal recently excoriated U.S. Soccer for not being more severe in its discipline of women’s goal keeper Hope Solo for domestic violence issues, saying, “U.S. Soccer should be on the right side of this issue and the right side of history.”

There is a separate issue of whether sports organizations ought to be the morality police, which is a position they are increasingly being put into, but Blumenthal not only agrees that they ought to police the morality of their athletes (at least, in certain proscribed areas such as domestic violence), but he has determined who is guilty and what the punishment ought to be, something the legal system hasn’t determined.

I’m disturbed by his bypass of the legal system, attempting to achieve justice through media manipulation of a sports organization. But I’m even more disturbed by the whole “right side of history” thing. Is there a right side of history? Can we determine which is the right or wrong side before history has even happened?

We humans are pretty bad at predicting the future.

So, how can we say today what the future will say about us in years to come? That’s what this silly phrase assumes: We know how the future will look back on today, and we know the future will look kindly on our side and badly on your side. But the unfolding of the future rarely follows the scripts we write for it. In fact, the unfolding of the future often unravels our best laid plans and our most longed-for expectations.

Who would have known just a few years ago that those who promote same-sex marriage would consider themselves to be on the right side of history? On the contrary, those who reject same-sex marriage would have considered themselves to be on the right side of history, since they had actual history on their side.

Any attempt to write history in advance is doomed to fail no matter which side you’re on.

The second problem I have with the phrase is that it is a conversation stopper. It has no place for reasoned argument, because it has already written the future’s determination of the issue at hand, regardless of what that issue is.

It’s as if the debate were in a courtroom and one side is able to call the future to the witness stand. Who can refute the future? The case is closed. All is decided. Give up your lost-cause side of the argument.

This is the equivalent to comparing someone to Nazis in a debate. If someone is a Nazi, they’re obviously evil. This is why there is a rule in debate called Godwin’s Law which says whoever mentions the Nazis first in a debate automatically loses. The same should apply to the use of the “right/wrong side of history.”

Any issue of any significance is worth debating fully. To prematurely close debate is to rob people of real debate and therefore to leave the premature decision on shaky ground. To manipulate the debate by cheap rhetoric (who wants to be on the wrong side of history, even if it isn’t written yet?) not only creates premature closure, but does it smugly and without doing the real work of reasoned debate.

So, please, can we stop with these right/wrong side of history comments? They’re not helping anything. In fact, they’re making our conclusions suspect.

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