The Dark Side of History

See you on the dark side of the moon…

Recently, China landed a craft on “the dark side” of the moon. Which in and of itself is a misnomer, because that side of the moon gets just as much light as the rest. Thanks to gravity and physics, the rotation of the moon matches its co-orbit with big brother Earth, and the same side points at us as it spins and rotates.

Which is a nice way of saying that while we all seem to know what people mean by “the dark side of the moon,” it isn’t that simple.

Which brings me to another phrase I hear a lot, that might not mean what you think it means.

(Inconceivable, I know.)

Welcome to the Right Side of History

Boy, there seem to be a lot of people who are eager to make sure they are judged as being on the right side of various issues. And certainly we benefit from additional historical research that sheds light on pivotal people, telling us where they stood in society and what they stood for.

I also see people who want to judge individuals from the 1600s according to the standards and mores of the 2000s. Certainly, sane and moral people can agree that those savage barbarians were on the Wrong side of history on many issues. And never mind those people who might have been a little ahead of the rest of their contemporaries – they were still eaten by the cancers of bigotry and hatred and slavery and greed and whatever else you choose as your measure of modern justice. Clearly, those people were on the Wrong side. They are flawed, and we can reject their ideas as null and void.

That last part comes as a convenient consequence for deconstructionists, who wish to remake society. Anyone who ever believed anything deemed abhorrent today is tainted. We must start over, to be cleansed and be on the Right side of history.

But what does that mean, in a present context? I mean, we can look back through the centuries and be clear and definitive about where civilization was, and where it is now. Given our science and understanding, it makes sense to compare to those who had less knowledge, less insight. We can know what was the Right side of (today’s) history – but how sure are we of the Right side of (tomorrow’s) history?

Future shocks

Unfortunately, that second use of the phrase is not as well-defined. We know something about the past, and a little something about the present. Or do we? We can’t seem to agree on what happened yesterday. And we now have technologies good enough to spoof reality, using your own eyes and brain to lie to you. What we know very little about is the future – and the future-past.

I mean, we can make some reasonable predictions about self-driving cars, alternative energy, political trends. We think we know the broad strokes of population expansion, migration, and the technology of connectedness. But can we say for sure what tomorrow’s mores and norms will be?

Do you think Iranians of the 1960s would have guessed that 50 years in the future would seem more restrictive than 50 years in the past? We think we know what is the “inevitable march of progress,” but do we?

Do you think that maybe the doctors of the year 2200 will look back at us like primitive and savage Neanderthals, what with our surgery and invasive procedures? “Oh Deity, those heretics used to remove cancers by poisoning their patients!” Oh, and everyone will refer to Deity, because it turns out a bunch of secular humanists ended up being wrong about the trends on religion.

That’s the danger of making bold proclamations about “the right side of history.” First of all, there is a large slice of ego involved there, that somehow we are worried that people 200 years from now will know my name and will shame my legacy for not believing the things they would consider normal.

When I was born, there were 3.6 billion living humans on Earth. Today, there are more than 7.7 billion. Despite the fears of the times, there are fewer people in poverty today than there were then — even though there are more than 4 billion more people. The “right side of history” crowd wanted you to know that we needed to stop having kids, that humans were a blight upon the planet. That we were going to crowd out our resources, and die horrible deaths in our own stink.

History did not make them right.

Hindsight and Foreheads

50 years before that, there were serious scientists engaged in the very serious science of phrenology – comparing and understanding how skull shapes and sizes could be predictive for criminal behavior. And politicians were lining up to put that knowledge to work, to ensure that only the right and desirable sorts of people got to have children. That we could remake society through better breeding.

Turns out, phrenology was crap, the worst kind of confirmation bias. Those skull dimensions mapped pretty well to racial and ethnic lines. And in a society rampant with institutional racism, we would not be shocked at all to see that people of certain skin tones (and without the benefits of inherited wealth) would end up in jail, or cast as criminals. Hell, it was even criminal to be poor.

Phrenology was not on the Right side of history. But the people who were attempting to institutionalize it as a policy were convinced they were, and had the power to enable it.

Hindsight and Foresight

Objectively speaking, there will be choices and norms that end up being considered to be “right.” That is not worth debating. But at times we can be arrogant about what we consider to be the inevitable. Do we know for sure that abortion will always be legal? Do we know for certain how people will look back on us, in 200 years? Will they look down on us for how we shackled women to their biology? Or will they look down on us for ending pregnancies?

I don’t know. And if you are honest, you don’t know either. You can have a strong guess and and even stronger preference, but you really don’t know. Which leads to an observation:

“Being on the right side of history” is the consequence of individuals or a society making emergent choices. It is not, in and of itself, an argument. You can’t shame someone into “being on the right side of history” because tomorrow hasn’t unfurled yet. Maybe you can guilt some people into confronting an uncomfortable paradox, or a Gordian Knot of belief. But you aren’t going to convince someone to support _______ by telling them to be “on the right side of history.” You do it by appealing to humanity, and by urging them to value X over Y.

Being on the Right side of history is a consequence of the choice – not the driving factor. Because like the moon, there is no permanent “light side” and “dark side.” There is only the side that we can see – which is objectively true, if we call it what it is and don’t extrapolate it further.

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