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Culture War Roundup for the week of April 29, 2024

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Columbia protests and the "right side of history"

A tremendously dumb argument, especially when made by woke people

[A tweet reading “Is [sic] is amazing how the protesters are always right 50 years ago and always wrong today.” @Will_Bunch]

In reaction to the ongoing pro-Palestine protests at Columbia University, a lot of people I respect have shared the above tweet. I don’t have especially strong opinions about the protests themselves, but I uncritically support the right of political activists to protest for any cause they choose to, and think that the Republicans (such as Greg Abbott) trying to prevent them from doing so are pathetic, cowardly and shamelessly hypocritical.

First things first: the tweet is just wrong on its face, unless you would have me believe that the people who protested against racially integrated schools in 1960s America were really in the right all along (hot take if so).

[By Will Bunch’s account, heroes unappreciated in their lifetimes.]

No: I’m sure that what Mr. Bunch meant is that all of the protestors from fifty years ago who are currently considered to have been on the right side of whichever political issue they protested were deeply unpopular at the time. This is probably true, but essentially useless when gauging the relative virtue of current political movements, because of survivorship bias. If there were only two sides to every political issue and the less popular one always came out on top in the judgement of the future, one could accurately predict which side of a current political issue would “win” purely based on which one had the lowest approval ratings. But, of course, there aren’t two sides to every political issue, many political activists protested for causes which were deeply unpopular at the time and remain so to this day, and so the category of “protesters who protest in favour of highly unpopular causes” is bound to include political causes which go on to be viewed in a generally positive light and political causes whose popularity never improves from a low baseline. (For a historical example, Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists never fielded any successful election candidates and their peak membership was only 40,000 people. More recently, to the extent that the riot in the Capitol on January 6th was a “protest”, most Americans think it was a bad idea, and I hope it stays that way.) A more accurate rephrasing of Bunch’s tweet might read: “Of the people who protested for various political causes 50 years ago, it is amazing how most of them were generally considered wrong at the time and a small subset of them are now looked upon favourably in the popular imagination.” (Not as catchy, but it does fit into the 280-character limit!)

But the tweet isn’t really about historical protests: it was tweeted about the Columbia protests, the implication being that, fifty years from now, historians (and society more generally) will look upon the protests in a favourable light. The tweet is hence just the latest example of that tiresome argumentative trope that woke people trot out for essentially every political issue, the assertion that their support for this or that political movement places them on the “right side of history”.1

All the “right side of history” framing boils down to is a prediction that future popular consensus will judge Political Group X favourably. I think this argument would be profoundly weak and fallacious coming from any political faction: how arrogant of anyone to think they can accurately predict what the people two generations from now will believe, when they can’t even reliably predict where they’re going to go for lunch tomorrow. But I’ve always found it especially strange when woke people in particular make the “right side of history” argument. I’ve never been able to put my finger on quite why, until the tweet above got me thinking about it.

The reason being, historical revisionism is woke people’s favourite pastime. There’s nothing woke people enjoy more than taking a historical figure who enjoys a high level of approval in the popular imagination and demanding that we reappraise their moral character, even to the point of completely reversing it: not merely that such-and-such was a more complex and flawed person than is widely believed, but that he was actually a monster. The woke exist to take the wind out of people’s sails, never forgoing an opportunity to remind people around them that Their Fave is Problematic, actually. It’s such a quintessential part of the woke playbook that even The Onion poked fun at it; or think of that wonderful scene in Tár where the “BIPOC pangender person” says they can’t enjoy Bach’s music because of Bach’s unrepentant misogyny. Take just about any historical figure who is widely admired in one or more Anglophone countries, and I guarantee you I can find a woke article in a mainstream publication arguing that he or she actually sucks (usually for reasons relating to the woke faction’s monomaniacal fixation on race and/or sex), e.g.:

(If you really want a laugh, turn this technique back on them. Next time you see some twentysomething university student reeking of weed wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt, point out to him that the man in question once asserted “The negro is indolent and lazy, and spends his money on frivolities”.)

I’m not even arguing that the woke revisionist accounts of the figures listed above are factually wrong or uncharitable (I certainly have no interest in defending Churchill from accusations of genocidal white supremacism, or Reagan from accusations of unabashed hatred of gay men). My point is that, once you recognise that morally atrocious people can go on to become near-unanimously revered both by scholars and in the popular imagination, it completely neuters the case for “the right side of history” being a useful guide to the moral virtues of present-day political figures or movements (or lack thereof), even assuming that one could accurately predict how these entities will be viewed in the popular imagination of the future.

To put it more plainly, woke people would have us believe both that:

1)Many historical figures who by popular and academic consensus are currently considered moral heroes, were in reality atrocious people.


2)In the future, popular and academic consensus will hold that the woke movement of the early 21st century was morally heroic.

The first premise is unassailably true, the second remains to be seen. But even if both premises are true, this doesn’t even come close to demonstrating that the woke movement actually is morally heroic. So in the future, historians and society more generally will look upon the Columbia protesters in a favourable light. So what? By the moral and epistemological standards espoused by woke people themselves, a popular consensus that Alice was a good person does not remotely imply that Alice actually was a good person. If Winston Churchill was an irredeemable monster who went on to be considered the greatest Briton who ever lived, why couldn’t this also be true of (to pick the first two woke Britons who popped into my head) Humza Yousaf or Diane Abbott? Not to say that either of these people are irredeemably awful, but there’s literally nothing in the woke framework which contradicts the notion that they could be and subsequently go on to be generally considered paragons of virtue.

This is the problem with employing postmodernism as a rhetorical device. Once you’ve done your best to redpill your listener by telling them that a widely admired figure was actually a crypto-fascist pederast Nazi sympathiser and the establishment don’t want you to know about it - following that up with “the establishment will look upon our movement in a favourable light” doesn’t seem like much of an accolade, even if it’s an accurate prediction. “So let me get this straight: you’re saying that history books have always been written by biased historians beholden to special interests, who systematically lionize awful, wretched people and ignore or gloss over their most atrocious moral failings, provided the person in question helped to advance the historians’ own political agenda. But the historians of the future (who by inclination and temperament will be no different from the historians of the present or the past) will look upon your political faction in a favourable light? Wow, what a ringing endorsement of your political faction! Sign me up!”

And this brings me to my final point. Although “the right side of history” sounds like it’s appealing to the listener’s moral sensibility, it’s really little more than a veiled promise and threat. History is written by the winners, so an assertion that supporting this or that movement puts you on the “right side of history” is really just a prediction that your team will win. That’s all it is: “my team is going to win”. Try rephrasing it in your head: “I support gender-affirming care for minors because I predict that my team will win” doesn’t sound half as noble as “I support gender-affirming care for minors because I want to be on the right side of history”, now does it? What the “right side of history” promises is that, if you join our team, historians will write hagiographies about us and forgive all of our worst sins. And if you don’t join our team? We’ll have no choice but to smear your team as depraved monsters with no redeeming features to speak of. Nice reputation among future generations you’ve got there - it’d be a shame if something happened to it.

1I had a feeling that the specific wording of “right side of history” had fallen out of popularity in recent years, and Google Trends seems to bear that out. That massive spike in 2019 appears to be the release of Ben Shapiro’s book of the same name (lol).

My theory is that the "right side of history" narrative (and its close cousins, casting being progressive as just being a "decent human being" and denigrating opposition as "retrograde" or "reactionary") is so ubiquitous because the progressive left is deeply confused about whether it believes in moral realism, and so adopts an inconsistent (but very effective) posture on moral questions.

On these big social questions, there are, at root, three reasons for acting:

  1. You are a moral realist and believe that X is right/wrong as a fundamental fact about reality. (How do you know? Maybe you believe God -- who knows such things -- said so; maybe you believe you have a direct apprehension of the truth; maybe it is a logical consequence of other things that are in the first two categories.) You act because you think it is right, period.
  2. You have a preference that you want to fulfill, and think that you and those who share it have the power -- or can obtain the power -- to enforce it. You act out of pure preference and power.
  3. You just want to go along to get along. You don't have an independent reason to act, so you don't act independently -- maybe you stay out of it, or maybe you join a cause you think will imminently win (or is most of your social circle) so that people will like you.

"The right side of history" tries to have it all three ways while not committing enough to any of them to expose weakness there.

Straightforward moral realism is a problem for the progressive left (at least in its modern incarnation; past movements vary) for two reasons. First, because most of its thought leaders are not moral realists, and many of the rest would reject moral realism if the question were put to them (though they may implicitly act as if they believed in it). Second, because the natural response to "It is a moral law of the universe that [insert progressive cause here] is good" is to say: "And how do you know? I'm pretty sure I've always heard that God said the opposite, my intuitions disagree, and anyway you just got done telling me that you don't believe in hearing from God, so why should I believe you?"

Straightforward appeals to power or preference are not persuasive -- at least not unless you already have the power and just want to compel, not "win hearts and minds".

And finally, appealing to people's "go along to get along" instincts is tough unless you can offer social proof that either your cause already dominates, or soon will. (It works wonders when you can, though -- see what happened to gay marriage.)

Enter "the right side of history". It appeals to moral realist intuitions and persuasive force, while not actually committing anyone to staking out an actual claim about ground truth morality. It can be a threat based on present or claimed future power without being explicit about it. It appeals to "go along to get along" without having to actually produce the goods in terms of current social influence.

Time will tell (ha) about whether the rhetorical strategy will continue to be effective, but I expect that, absent major ideological realignment, it will continue to be used in one form or another.

This is an extremely accurate description of the phenomenon, and it's prevalent here as well, contributing to Hlynka's observation that a surprising number of the commenters here have built their positions on the same fundamental ground as the progressive left, though they want to vehemently deny it, as well as my observation that this turn to stealth moral relativism packaged in confusion came, in large part, due to New Internet Atheism convincing a lot of folks to at least claim a jettison of moral realism, but not knowing how to handle it philosophically, and leading pretty directly into the dominant frame being one of pure power politics along the lines of cancel/deplatform/shame woke-style culture.

So far, when I've prodded, I've seen one commenter embrace the conclusion in a clear-eyed manner, but more often, folks just lean in to the mire of completely confused meta-ethics. After seeing your excellent trilemma, it makes sense that it seems common to appeal to game theory, even if it's still a confused appeal, because I'm starting to think that the appeal to game theory is basically a variant of "the right side of history". One doesn't need to do any of the hard work of showing why an iterative game theoretic process will actually converge to the "right" solution (because one cannot commit to positing a "right" solution), but you can see in those threads that they are utterly allergic to embracing a straightforward appeal to power or preference. So we get weaksauce meta-ethics that make it obvious to any real, existing agents who actually understand game theory and can think through the process of unilateral defection (perhaps at the level of a movement/group of 'insiders') and realize that no one is able to present a meaningful argument against pure exertion of cultural power, so the obvious game theoretic response is to do precisely that. It's like they sort of realize that they're playing something akin to prisoner's dilemma, but weirdly think that invoking "the right side of history" or vague "game theoretic concerns" will certainly result in cooperate-cooperate, but simultaneously not understanding game theory enough to know that it actually leads to "the wrong side of history", defection, and pure power.