If there is one thing you don’t want to do in 2018, it is end up on the wrong side of history. Although the term itself seems to be used rather loosely, the general idea is that there are some things that are right while others are wrong, and you better be sure that you affirm what you should affirm and shun what you ought to shun. However, its usage remains ambiguous and its application can either be based on wrong opinions or wrong facts.
For example, in 2014, President Obama indicated that Russia was going to be on the wrong side of history for invading Crimea according to Ben Yagoda of Slate. Matthew Avery Sutton wrote in The Guardian that because of the approach he took to discussing racial issues, Billy Graham was on the wrong side of history. In each of these two stories, the commentators are explaining why Russia or Billy Graham did things that will be evaluated as wrong when historians look back from the future. The judgments that will be made regarding these situations will show them as wanting. They may cite examples and facts to explain why their opinion on the legacy of these people turned out a certain way, but there are legitimately two sides to these types of debates.
In 2015, Linton Weeks posted a list on NPR entitled, “5 Statements On The Wrong Side Of History.” This list is slightly different because it does not make judgments about things that will be perceived as wrong in the future. It speaks about things that are factually wrong and not open for debate. For example, one statement on the wrong side of history was given by the owner of the Green River Republican, Otis White, in 1946. He said, “Man is not going to fly to the moon or invade any other planets.” There’s no interpretation as to whether or not Mr. White is on the right side of history or the wrong side of history. His prediction about the future was factually wrong.
Therefore, when we talk about being on the wrong side of history, we have to understand what we are actually talking about. Are we talking about someone who we judge to have taken the wrong position in hindsight, or are we talking about someone who made a prediction that turned out to be wrong in the future?
Let’s take the example of Russia. In 2014, President Obama made the judgment that the decision Russia made was going to turn out to be on the wrong side of history. The Russian officials who made that decision clearly made the judgment that they believed they were going to on the right side of history and made the right decision. There is clearly a moral judgment that is being made in this scenario. It is right or wrong to invade Crimea, and President Obama was claiming that in the future, the judgment of history would not be kind to the Russians.
In the case of Mr. White and interplanetary travel, there were clearly people at his time who would have presented the opposite case and believed that going to the moon was a real possibility. They obviously turned out to be right, but it is not a moral question. There is no ethical judgment made on the character of Mr. White. He may have been wrong, but we could never say that he was unethical or immoral. He was factually wrong. It is fundamentally different than the first question.
For our discussion today, we are going to be focusing on the first scenario where something is judge to be morally or ethically wrong in hindsight. It seems that speaking about being on the wrong side of history typically refers to this first case. Being factually wrong is of course unfortunate, but it is not a question of moral judgment. Given the judgmental tone that most people utilize when they speak about someone being on the wrong side of history, discussing the idea of moral judgment seems to be the more relevant issue of the day.
Will the Future Be Better Than the Past?
The fundamental problem with this concept of being on the wrong side of history is that it makes the assumption that in the future, moral judgment will be purer than it is right now. Those historians in the future who are looking back on us right now will come to the determination through their application of their own superior moral code that we were wrong while other people were right. This progressive view of the evolution of morality was strongly criticized by G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy.
Chesterton wrote, “If the standard changes, how can there be improvement, which implies a standard?” This may seem to be extraordinarily basic. It is obviously difficult to evaluate how far you have progressed if there is no standard that you are progressing towards. If I know it is 100 miles until I get to my hotel for the night, the only way I’m going to be able to tell how far I have gone is by realizing how far I have left to go. I am measuring my progress against the 100 miles I have to go until I get to my hotel.
In the same way, morality is only relevant if there is a standard. If it is right to be kind to my neighbor, then if I am kind to my neighbor six out of seven mornings in this week, I can celebrate how much kinder I was than last week when I only said hello three mornings. The standard is to always be kind, and I can tell how well I conform to that standard.
If there was no standard, however, that I should be kind, I would have no idea if I am improving my behavior. Without the standard, or if the standard changed, I would have no idea if I was doing better and making progress or if I was going in the absolute wrong direction.
Being on the wrong side of history then seems to imply that those in the future are going to judge that certain perspectives were right while other perspectives were wrong with an evolved code. President Obama is making the assumption that in the future, the historians will (shockingly) come to the consensus that his perspective was right while the Russians were wrong. I happen to agree with the President that the Russians were wrong, but it really does not matter all that much to me whether or not they are on the wrong side of history. They are on the wrong side of right now, and the wrong side of right now is the same as it was in the past and the same as it will be in the future. This phrase implies an evolution of morality that there is a perpetual enlightenment and a perpetual increase in moral understanding.
The Necessity of Objective Truth
Chesterton additionally spoke about essentially calling a spade a spade in terms of moral teaching, and I think this straightforwardness is desperately lacking in our world today. “Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.”
We embrace particular views because we find them to be right. Unfortunately, we are quick to affirm that our perspective may be wrong, and we don’t have the intestinal fortitude to stick with things that we know are true. Of course, I’m not talking about being absolutely closed off to anything new. However, when you have found truth, and there is no doubt in your mind that it is indeed actual truth like the multiplication tables, Chesterton is advising that you do not have to be modest anymore. You can affirm truth, and you can claim that you have found truth. This claim should be done carefully, thoughtfully and supported by the testimony of reason and reality, but in terms of our individual views, it is important to remember that we can find truth.
This is important to remember because, if we are going to say someone is going to be on the wrong side of history, we need that truth and that standard to exist. Otherwise, how can we possibly determine which side of history is right and right side is wrong? As Chesterton quipped, “The theory of a complete change of standards in human history does not merely deprive us of the pleasure of honouring our fathers; it deprives us even of the more modern and aristocratic pleasure of despising them.” The idea of progress is fine, but if our moral judgment is ultimately dependent on the fact that they are going to be shown to be on the wrong side of history in the future, the question is why are they not on the wrong side of right now?
Of course, there is some kind of poetic aesthetic to utilizing a phrase claiming that someone will be on the wrong side of history, but it ultimately is a meaningless phrase. It is empty and devoid of meaning because it is ultimately redundant. Chesterton clearly illustrates that there must be some type of standard, and that standard is not going to change. Perhaps we may become more aware of the standard and realize our own shortcomings. We might become more aligned with that which is right. I think about the blemish of racism on our society. I will not say that America is perfect by any means, but it is hard to deny that we have improved since the time of the Civil War. We are not where we ought to be, but I would contend that American society is better at loving our neighbor then we were at that time when we justified enslaving our neighbor. The rightness of loving our neighbor has always been the same since the beginning of time, and we have progressed towards practicing that more successfully despite our shortcomings which remain tragically evident.
The Modern Dilemma
This is, of course, the tension of 21st-century America because we want to say that we have abandoned the standards. We want to say that we have thrown off the shackles of objective morality, and the evidence of our moral progress is the fact that we have made progress in areas of race relations for example. The standards are different today, so those people in the past were on the wrong side of history, and with our modern understanding and our rebellion against the standards those people held back then, we are much better than they were.
To this modern revolutionary, Chesterton would contend, “Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.” We say that racism is wrong, but we reject the idea that there is anything like objective truth. We claim a contradiction because we want to take credit for the progress we’ve made. They thought it was right, but now they are on the wrong side of history, and we know better because we moderns have a better sense of morality. Rather than comparing how well we conform to the standard of actual right and wrong, we create the standard of how well we conform to the image that we want to say we conform to.
Ultimately, in order to say that someone is on the wrong side of history, this modern, revolutionary understanding must be true. We need to embrace subjective morality, and we need to believe that through the evolution of morality itself, even though things might have been believed to be right in the past, they are not right anymore.
It requires the absolute rejection of any type of objective standard because if there is such a thing as objective truth, then being on the wrong side of history is irrelevant. Historical judgment does not matter. You are on the wrong side of right and wrong from the beginning to the end regardless of what the historians say in 50 years. There is not a separate set of criteria for being right in the past but wrong now. Even if we align with the objective standard more genuinely than we did in our history, this is not because our moral sense has evolved. We recognize human fallenness, and we recognize that we do not live the way we ought to all the time. Our mission is to continue to become conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, and in doing so, we line up with that standard that is the same forever, the Alpha and the Omega.
 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 57, Kindle Edition.
 Ibid., 52.
 Ibid., 58.
 Ibid., 66.