As a former history graduate, I have come to loathe the phrase ‘the wrong side of history’. I was particularly disheartened to see it employed by the Guardian in a disparaging report about Billy Graham. It was the very title of a report by Matthew Avery Sutton. You can read it here.
What is frustrating about the phrase is that it is essentially meaningless. It implies that history itself is a judge of right and wrong and it weighs every person in the balance to find them righteous or otherwise. In short, it posits history as God.
There is obviously an inherent problem of implying an abstract concept qua abstract concept weighing anything at all. It is a category error. History is not a personal being capable of weighing anything. History is incapable of judging anything of itself; it is a catch-all for a set of thought-tools we use for understanding the past. History itself can no more judge a person than a hammer or a spanner can do anything lying in a toolbox.
That aside, at heart, the person talking about the ‘wrong side of history’ wants to imply an objective standard has weighed you in the balances and found you wanting. It’s not me; it’s history! Whilst the pursuit of history is undoubtedly a waste of time if there is no objective truth to be known, we cannot deny that each of us brings our own biases to the table when we engage in the task of history. Whilst I would want to argue against the idea that there is no such thing as objective history – the whole task is pointless if there isn’t – it is true that there are no objective historians.
This, however, has ramifications for the ‘wrong side of history’ advocate. They are seeking to argue that history itself – that is, the abstract tool – has objectively weighed you in the balances and found you wanting. But the tool has to be wielded by an operator. We don’t put cars in prison when they mow down pedestrians, we jail the drivers who determine where the car goes and what the car does. Likewise, history can do nothing by itself; it requires a historian driver. But, of course, as soon as a historian drives the car of history, it is they, not the abstract concept of history itself, that is in control of what it does.
There are two broad ways in which our control of history can skew our view. First, we may be selective in the information we consider. This can either be an honest missing of some information that we didn’t know existed or it can be a purposeful rejection of certain information because it doesn’t fit our predisposed view. Second, our interpretation of the facts we consider will inevitably be based upon certain prior assumptions. Generally speaking, the honest way to deal with that problem is to make known our assumptions at the beginning of any particular piece of research and allow others to decide whether our pre-existing commitments are clouding our interpretation of the facts as they are set before us.
The Billy Graham opinion piece in the Guardian offers a good example of how this control plays out in practice. The articles states, ‘within days of the publication of [Martin Luther] King’s famous 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Graham told reporters that the Baptist minister should “put the brakes on a little bit”’. Given the heading of the piece, we are being led to believe that Billy Graham was against civil rights and opposed Martin Luther King. What the writer fails to tell us is that Billy Graham was the one who bailed Martin Luther King out of the Birmingham Jail in 1963. Nor does it detail the close ongoing friendship between the two men nor Graham’s involvement in supporting civil rights consistently. Our interpretation of one standalone fact may lead to a particular conclusion; our interpretation of a wider set of facts may well lead us to another.
The point is that those who claim the ‘wrong side of history’ argument fail to realise this is nothing more than a dressed up way of saying ‘I have determined you are wrong’. In many cases, it is utterly insincere. The ‘wrong side of history’ implies that history itself has objectively weighed your actions and found you wanting. In reality, an individual tends to hold a view that presumes your guilt before they begin weighing the evidence and then engages in the historical task of ‘proving’ their pre-existing bias.
The fact of the matter is that history has not judged Billy Graham. Individuals who hold particular views have weighed Billy Graham’s actions and found them wanting in their own eyes. Of course, each of us is entitled to our own religious and political views (many of my political views would not be in line with Billy Graham) but that does not mean history has judged him. It means we personally have judged him. It may even be said that our culture, as it determines morality today to which we are unthinkingly attached, has judged him. But who is to say the culture in 10, 20, 50 or 100 years time might not weigh him again and consider Billy Graham closer to the truth than 21st century Britain?
What is more, the writer has judged the entire person of Billy Graham based on some of Graham’s political views. Worse, a number of pertinent facts have been omitted from the piece. Regardless of the reasons why the writer omitted them, it is difficult to have much confidence in his conclusions when he has left out important evidence that would significantly sway our judgement. The claim that Billy Graham is on ‘the wrong side of history’ seems much farther fetched when it is apparent the writer is drawing conclusions that neither take account of all, or even the best, evidence.
We need to stop using the ‘wrong side of history’ argument. The very nature of history is that it will be revised. We interpret events from our particular standpoint and presume that we, with Whiggish certainty, are the most advanced, and thus best placed, people to interpret events. Yet history keeps rolling and gives us no certainty whatsover that our historical arrogance won’t be overturned by future generations who believe they’ve got everything sewn up too. When we say ‘history has judged’, we are really saying that we are judging events in history. A little more honesty about that might save us from embarrassment when future generations inevitably tells us that we were on the wrong side of history.