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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