The Long Side of History

August 9, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston
(Cross-posted at Sociological Images)

Peter Berger* takes issue with the phrase “on the wrong side of history” (here). Mostly, he takes issue with those who use that phrase. Specifically, he refers to proponents of gay marriage who claim that the Defense of Marriage Act is “on the wrong side of history” (or in Berger’s acronym, OTWSOH) The trouble with this statement, Berger says, is that “we cannot know who or what is on the right side.”

Berger is correct (though he doesn’t offer much explanation) because the history that people are referring to hasn’t happened yet. The history of OTWSOH is the future, and we can’t know the future. However – and here’s where Berger is wrong – we can make a pretty good guess about some things that will happen, at least in the short-run future. We can look at the trend – Americans becoming more accepting of gay marriage – and predict that the trend will continue, especially when we see that the young are more accepting than the old.

But beyond the short-run, who knows? It’s possible that the values, ideas, and even facts that are right today will, decades or centuries from now, be wrong, as in this clip from Woody Allen’s “Sleeper.” Allen, cryonically frozen in 1973, has been awakened 200 years later, and two doctors are discussing his case. (Stop the video at about the 0:50 mark.)

So it may turn out that at some time in the future, people will think that gay marriage is a plague on civilization, that human slavery is a pretty good idea, that Shakespeare was a hack, and that Kevin Federline was a great musician.

The trouble with asking history, “Which side are you on?” is that history doesn’t end. It’s like the possibly true story of Henry Kissinger asking Chou En Lai about the implications of the French Revolution. Said the Chinese premier, “It’s too early to tell.”

At what point can we say, “This is it. Now we know which side history is on”? We can’t, because when we wake up tomorrow, history will still be rolling on. Duncan Watts, in Everything Is Obvious . . . Once You Know the Answer, makes a similar point using the historical film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” The two robbers flee the US and go to Bolivia. Good idea? Since we know how the movie ends – that sepia freeze frame – we can safely say, “No, bad idea.”

But if we had stopped the movie twenty minutes earlier, it would have seemed like a good idea. The vindictive lawman and his posse were about to find and kill them. A few minutes later in the film, Bolivia seemed again like a bad idea – it was a miserable place. Then, when their robberies in Bolivia were easy and lucrative, it seemed again like a good idea. And then, they got killed. Butch was 42, Sundance 31.

But history is not a movie. It doesn’t end. So at least for the long run, the OTWSOH argument smacks of arrogance. It says, “We know what will happen, and we know that we are on the right side of history, and those who are not with us are on the wrong side of history.” Arrogant indeed, though not so arrogant as those who claim to know whose side God is on and who say in effect, “We are on God’s side, and those who disagree with us are against God.”

Berger is probably right that OTWSOH “comes more naturally to those on the left,” mostly because that is the side that is pushing for historical change. For some reason, Berger, whose field is sociology of religion, makes no mention of people, mostly those on the right, who claim to be on God’s side.

* Yes, this is the same Peter Berger whose Social Construction of Reality (co-written with Thomas Luckman), published forty-five years ago, has an important place in sociology’s relatively short history.

HT: Gabriel Rossman


PCM said...

"Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."

If King is right, then we *can* pick a "right side" of history.

But I think the point of using the phrase is to point out that it is a moral issue. Nobody talks about being on the right side of history when it comes to the debt ceiling or tort reform. Those are policy issues more than moral issues.

Historically, in America, conservatives have been on the wrong side of history. At least when it counts. Slavery, suffrage, and the entire Civil Rights movement come to mind.

Sometimes liberals are on the wrong side of history, as with Prohibition and the invasion of Iraq.

Generally you're on the right side of history when you defend individual freedom against state-mandated discrimination. And that isn't a liberal or conservative issue but rather one of believing with great confidence that one is right.

I'm very surprised that any conservative would cede such conviction over wishy-washy relativism to the liberal side.

History has decided when we ratchet past a point where we can't and don't want to go back to. Who would argue for taking away women's *right* to vote or state-enforced segregation? Nobody. History has decided. Gay marriage is probably similar in that years from now people will probably look back and say, "what was the big deal?" and with disbelief, "this was really something people debated?"

Suffragists and Martin Luther King were on the right side of history.

Now of course we *could* go back... but then it would be called a Dark Age (Jane Jacobs wrote a good book on this concept).

I would say In Defense of Flogging is provocative precisely because I'm trying to get people to consider something that history has already decided (against). And in defending corporal punishment I very explicitly make the argument that those who support the status quo of incarceration will be judged to be on the wrong side of history (using Kwame Anthony Appiah's standards).

...I also refer to Woody Allen's Sleeper.

Jay Livingston said...

Both are making moral claims, and the history boys are adding a factual prediction, though maybe that’s also implicit in the God version. The trouble with that arc bending towards justice is that justice is defined differently by different societies.

I also find it difficult to distinguish between the morality and mere policy, especially in the two matters where you say that liberals are OTWSOH. Is our current drug policy a moral issue or a policy one? I guess you could argue that it’s morality dressed up to look like policy, but it’s probably more accurate to say that it’s both. Ditto for Prohibition. And with both alcohol and drugs, the morality of the Drys may be correct; it’s just that the policy built on that morality worked, and is working, badly.

The Iraq war seems much more a policy matter than a moral one, though when the two political justifications turned out to be false (WMD and links to 9/11-Al Qaeda), the only thing the Bushies had left was the moral angle (Saddam is Evil)

Andrew Gelman said...

This Peter Berger? He may just be sore about being on the losing side of the tobacco wars.

Jay Livingston said...

Andrew -- Since Social Construction days he seems to have devoted himself to promoting religion and the tobacco industry -- Holy Smoke!

Thanks for the added info.