On the wrong side of justice

This post is going to be a bit of a pedantic rant about a figure of speech, but I hope you’ll bear with me because I don’t think it’s a trivial issue. Progressive liberals often describe conservatives as being “on the wrong side of history” when it comes to things like gay rights, gender or race equality, and generally most progressive causes. History indeed shows us that the people who make arguments standing in opposition to social changes often find themselves left in the dust – defenders of Jim Crow segregations laws lost, as did those who opposed women getting the vote, as did those who said that gay people shouldn’t be allowed to serve in the military.

There is something missing from that “left in the dust” statement though, and that’s the word “eventually”. The people who opposed Jim Crow were highly relevant right up until Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act. People who opposed gay equality in Canada (at least insofar as marriage was concerned) were highly relevant up until 2004, when the Supreme Court ruled that marriage discrimination violated the Charter rights of gay Canadians – people who oppose gay people serving openly in the U.S. armed forces only became ‘the wrong side of history’ last year.

Indeed, we can also see this starry-eyed phrase crop up in our ongoing social justice struggles:

Christie Blatchford seems to have a penchant for horse manure. In her vitriolic piece about Attawapiskat Cree Chief Theresa Spence, who is entering the twenty-first day of hunger strike on Monday, Blatchford writes, “all around her, the inevitable cycle of hideous puffery and horse manure that usually accompanies native protests swirls.” In 2006, she wrote an equally disgraceful and racist puff piece equating Muslims with terrorism, deriding men in beards and women in burkas, declaring that the Islamic Foundation of Toronto “had a sea of horse manure emanating from the building.”


We know that Blatchford and other right-wing commentators and politicians are on the wrong side of history, where and how the rest of us will stand is the crucial question. The grassroots Idle No More movement — through rallies, blockades, social media, round-dances, and ceremonies — has inspired Indigenous communities as well as non-Indigenous allies across these lands.

In each of these cases – indeed, in the story of all social justice movements – the ‘side of history’ was only decided after a long and concerted campaign by countless activists, speakers, wronged persons, court cases, and no shortage of pain and suffering. For all of the injustices we still see in these realms – disproportionate imprisonment, income inequality, discrimination in other forms – those who argue against changes are, by the same token, on the right side of history (until those things are fixed, at which point their side will have been “wrong” all along).

The problem I have with this phrase is that it makes justice sound inevitable. As though there is some great and inexorable force of morality and equality that exists, free-form, in the ether of history that rights all wrongs, provided we give it enough time to work its magic. I reject this as superstitious nonsense, and frankly dangerous nonsense at that. The story of history is not one that unreservedly sees justice dispensed to those who have been wronged – we need look only at income inequality in the United States to see that ‘history’ is just as capable of increasing injustice when it so desires.

When Kathleen Wynne was selected as premier-designate in Ontario, there was a collective sight of relief from the “history is ultimately just” crowd, who saw her triumph as the inevitable result of a populace that is getting more accepting of women and gay people in positions of power. What may have figured less prominently in their thinking is the struggle that political feminists and gay rights crusaders have been engaged in for decades. It was their work, and not a passive and faceless process of ‘history’, that made Ms. Wynne’s victory possible.

To be sure, at some point in the past, the majority of Ontarians (or at least Ontario Liberals) were persuaded, through a variety of processes, to shuck enough of the normative bigotry against lesbians to accept one as head of their party. Perhaps it would be accurate to say that, beyond that point, the success of a Kathleen Wynne was inevitable. After all, once people stop seeing sex and sexuality as a disqualifying factor, a non-majority member will eventually (there’s that word again) rise through the ranks. But we didn’t start at that position, and we are indebted to a small and noisy and dedicated group of people for getting us to the point where these things simply don’t seem like a big deal anymore.

So, as an alternative to the phrase “the wrong side of history”, I offer the following substitute: people who oppose equality are on the wrong side of justice. They are the force that opposes equality and freedom and wants to see the injustices that exist today carried forward into the future. Those who defend the status quo – either by fighting directly for injustice, or by demanding that the noisy minority ‘keep it down’ and be ‘respectful’ of the majority – are not necessarily doomed to fail by virtue of their positions, but they are doomed to stand opposed to human dignity and justice. And while we might hope that they will also end up being on “the wrong side of history”, there is certainly nothing inherent to history that makes such a happenstance merely a matter of time.

The fact is that justice is a human construct, and one for which we constantly struggle. All of the major improvements in fairness and social justice we have seen in the recent century have not been because of the ineffable will of an ultimately-moral ‘history’, but rather the result of people. Freedoms are not the inevitable product of history – they only come when the people fighting for them have more power than those fighting against them.

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  1. Sivi says

    I like this. Like you suggest, it seems to remove the implication that justice will occur on its own, with some kind of historical inevitability, as I’ve heard various upper-middle-class liberals suggest.

    I’m reminded of this song “My Country” by New Model Army.

    “No rights were ever given to us by the grace of God
    No rights were ever given by some United Nations clause
    No rights were ever given by some nice guy at the top
    Our rights they were bought by all the blood
    And all the tears of all our
    Grandmothers, grandfathers before”

  2. invivoMark says

    What kind of justice? Retributive justice? Aristotelean justice? Justice as fairness?

    Justice is kind of a uselessly vague term, and half the things that it “stands for” I don’t really agree with (I disagree with retributive justice, e.g.).

    I totally get what you’re saying, though, and I respect it.

  3. ravenred says

    Well… Justice is iterative. It gets reinterpreted regularly, by human agents, often those who are politically aware beasts like judges and politicians.

    Women being able to vote was absolutely just, but it wasn’t the end of the story. Vashti McCollum not having her son pressured into religious classes was just, but it wasn’t the end of the story. The 1967 Referendum removing constitutional inequality towards Australia’s indigenous peoples was just, but it wasn’t the end of the story.

    Behind the victories there’s an enormous amount of spade-work, and a huge amount of uncertainty. Teleological crap doesn’t make the work easier or for that matter more certaiin, no matter how self-righteous it makes its proponents feel.

    Justice is absolutely part of history, and its entirely possible to be on the wrong side of both.

  4. says

    I don’t think you go far enough, because the entire American Republican Party is on the “wrong side of history” RIGHT NOW, and they have enough power that they may win every presidential election between now and 2050 thanks to gerrymandering. History isn’t written until much later, and the tides can swing back before the books change.

  5. freemage says

    As a counter-argument, I’d like to suggest that the phrase, “the wrong side of history” serves two purposes:

    1: It’s a cheerleading, morale-building statement to those engaged in the social justice struggle of that moment. It’s meant to encourage those who may be flagging, because yes, the fight for social justice can be so very, very tiring at times, even as it is so very vital. Pointing to ‘history’ is a way of saying, “One day, we will be to the point where an anti-gay bigot is as big an anomaly as an open advocate for slavery, or as someone who espouses that women’s suffrage was a mistake.” Rousing the troops with encouragement is often necessary (and I certainly prefer it to the ‘beset on all sides’ rhetoric that is so often ironically used by those in positions of privilege).

    2: It’s also an appeal to the moderates and the fence-sitters, to the people who are inclined to sit around and say, “Hey, I don’t need to worry about this,” or “Maybe civil unions would be good enough, after all.” It’s meant to push the muddy middle into taking a more active position. I’ll admit it’s not a rational argument; sadly, the belief that rational argument alone will win the day is, itself, an irrational belief, unsupported by the evidence. The best way to make your case is to ground it in reason, and then sell it with pizzazz, and “The wrong side of history” is very much a marketing campaign.

  6. Dunc says

    It’s all part of the fundamental myth of our modern culture – the myth of “progress”. Everything is always assumed to be getting better, inevitably and monotonically.

  7. Rieux says

    The problem I have with this phrase is that it makes justice sound inevitable. As though there is some great and inexorable force of morality and equality that exists, free-form, in the ether of history that rights all wrongs, provided we give it enough time to work its magic. I reject this as superstitious nonsense, and frankly dangerous nonsense at that.

    There’s something very staunchly atheistic (shock horror!) about that contention. It contrasts directly, of course, with the Famous Quotation on this topic: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

    As usual, the Unitarians are to blame. (Joke… mostly.)

  8. jamessweet says

    An interesting take. For me, when I use the phrase, I am not at all falling for the myth of inevitable progress, but rather making a point that a particular social change is not only just, but also at that point quite obviously inevitable. I would not, for example, argue that those who perpetuate income inequality are “on the wrong side of history”, because I don’t think it is at all certain how history is going to unfold in that regard. However, I feel pretty damn confident at this point that marriage equality will be the norm in the democratic world in a relatively short amount of time, so in that sense I feel pretty confident arguing that its opponents are “on the wrong side of history”.

    Nevertheless, even if I don’t mean it that way, I get the point that this could be unintentionally propagating the myth of inevitable progress. Good food for thought…

  9. Croncor says

    Wht you’re missing is that the phrase is a very useful in rhetorical strategy. If an activist movement can repeat often enough from enough outlets to its opponents that they are on the wrong side of history, they will begin to feel embattled, and eventually despair. That despair is politically very disadvantageous for them, because it means they will be less likely to expend effort in defending their cause. Yes, the notion behind the phrase is a little bit of progressivist BS that people tote around to justify their ideas (the future is good, the future is different, I am fighting for change, therefore I am the great liberator of humanity), but I find that most of the people who use it don’t care half so much about truth and informing others as they do about exercising their political will and finger-pointing theatrics against whoever disagrees with them.

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