The Wrong Side of History

Having started the week by sharing an article questioning whether we really ever learn “lessons” from the past, let me close the week by considering another way that Americans commonly try to make the past useful: by deploying it as a rhetorical weapon in the most heated debates of the present day.

Two versions of this come up a lot. First, argument by historical analogy: “You should think or feel this way about an issue because it’s just like [insert historical analogue that happened some time ago].” Second, argument from historical inevitability — as in “You should think or feel this way about an issue or else you’ll be on the wrong side of history.”

You can find both strategies — often used in tandem — across the political spectrum on any number of issues, but both seem especially popular in the ongoing debate over human sexuality, as conservative historian-theologian Carl Trueman observed yesterday at First Thoughts:

Carl Trueman
Carl Trueman – Westminster Theological Seminary

There is another element in gay rights rhetoric which is just as important: that which invokes the verdict of history. The phrase is invoked particularly when LGBTQ advocates wish to connect their struggle to the struggle against slavery in the nineteenth-century or for civil rights in the twentieth. Regardless of its obvious presumption, such language has the great advantage of simultaneously connoting objectivity, progress, and inevitability. Those who reject it are thus unscientific, reactionary, and (above all) a pack of losers.

Is LGTBQ “the new civil rights movement“? There’s obvious rhetorical power in arguing that the struggle for marriage equality is analogous to the struggle against Jim Crow (or, a century earlier, against slavery itself). So much so that even as conservatives push back against the analogy and argue that it’s meant to stifle debate (by essentially rendering opposition to same-sex marriage the moral equivalent of racism), some seize it for themselves, arguing that they face a loss of religious liberty that makes theirs the true “next civil rights movement.”

But if Robert Zaretsky was right (from Monday’s post) to argue that we can’t generally draw lessons from the past because each past is unique, then shouldn’t that make us shy away from argument by historical analogy? If historical thinking is contextual, complex, and sensitive to change over time, it shouldn’t take much historical scrutiny for analogies to fall apart.

What of the related argument that opposing gay rights puts one on the “wrong side of history”? Noting evangelical ethicist David Gushee’s statement that he was “willing to let God and history be my judge” of his affirmation of same-sex relationships, Trueman warned:

Stalin and Ribbentrop
Josef Stalin and German foreign minister (and future war criminal) Joachim von Ribbentrop shaking hands on their August 1939 deal – Bundesarchiv

Invoking history in one’s support is, strictly speaking, a risky exercise, given that the history one is invoking is actually the future, not the past, at the moment of invocation. As a rhetorical ploy, it also has a rather grim track record. Reading the recently translated memoirs of Dietrich von Hildebrand, ‘the Catholic Bonhoeffer’ (of which more soon), I was interested to see how often he encountered Christian theologians who did not support him in his opposition against Hitler because they saw Nazism as the culmination of the historical process. History, they thought, was on their side—a point which presumably explains why (at precisely the same time) so many of the brightest European minds of the 1920s and 1930s became Communists. Not only did they see Communism as a means of opposing Nazism and Fascism; they also saw the Russian Revolution as a sign that, yes, they too were on the right side of history. History has indeed judged Nazis and Communists, but not with quite the verdict for which they had hoped.

Now, as a historian who studies and teaches this complicated chapter in European history, I wish people of all political perspectives would resist the temptation to bring Nazism into the discussion. If conservatives don’t like being tarred as moral-historical outcasts through one argument by historical analogy, they ought not do the same to their opponents by “playing the Nazi card.” (Or the Stalinist one.)

However, even as I wish that he gave a more germane and less German example, I do think Trueman is right to question the wisdom of the “verdict of history” argument, since “the history one is invoking is actually the future, not the past, at the moment of invocation.” To return to one more Zaretsky argument, history is not a predictive science: it can discern patterns looking backwards, but it cannot possibly project them forwards.

(See: 19th century “Whiggish” historians who preached the inevitability of human progress in the years and decades running up to World War I; those who predicted “the end of history” either in anticipation of Communism or in celebrating its demise.)

It was fascinating, then, to see Trueman’s post come up virtually side-by-side in my Feedly list with a post by someone on the opposite side of the sexuality debate: Rachel Held Evans.

Both historical-rhetorical strategies came up quickly in Evans’ “The Slaveowners and Me,” which was prompted in part by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission hosting a conference on homosexuality this week:

Rachel Held EvansGiven the SBC’s troubling history of supporting slavery and opposing civil rights for African Americans, I was dismayed to see an attendee brag about the event’s good attendance by posting a picture of a crowded conference room with the caption: “So this is what the wrong side of history looks like.” Later in the event, a speaker declared he would “rather be on the wrong side of history than on the wrong side of a holy God.”

Evans acknowledged that “comparing the suffering of slaves and people of color to the marginalization of LGBT people is irresponsible and does a disservice to both.” However, she did lament that Christians were so rarely interested in “exploring exactly why their predessors might have supported oppression in the past” and suggested that “such information might be critical for assessing whether similar oppression is occurring in the present.”

But while that seems to set her up for a “wrong side of history” rhetorical move, she actually asked a genuinely historical question: why did Christians support slavery?

As we read and explore and study our history, white Christians in particular would do well to ask of our grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great grandparents:  What were they thinking? How did they justify their actions? What convinced them that they were doing right?  Whether our ancestors were complicit in oppression or whether they bravely stood up against it, it’s worth nurturing the curiosity and introspection it takes to wonder why.

As she worked through this idea, Evans emphasized the importance of historical empathy: with the oppressed and the oppressors. It’s a common theme in my own classes. “I would never expect you to sympathize with some of the people we’ll encounter in the darker corners of European history,” I write in my Modern Europe syllabus, “But empathy is appropriate.” So as we study people as diverse as aristocrats and peasants, revivalists and freethinkers, anarchists and (yes) fascists, I encourage my students to “[nurture] the curiosity and introspection it takes to wonder why” people thought, felt, and believed as they did whether they were on the “right” or “wrong” side of history.

Crowe, "In the Richmond Slave Market"
Eyre Crowe, “In the Richmond Slave Market” (1853)

Equally importantly, Evans recognized that asking good questions about the past confronts us with our own limitations:

We are often told to nurture empathy for those who are unlike us or those who suffer. But Scripture’s powerful emphasis on prophetic lament calls us to also nurture empathy for those we’d like to think are unlike us, those whose sins we assume we would never commit ourselves.  Because the degree to which we take sin seriously isn’t so much in how good were are at spotting it in others, but rather in how good were are at spotting it in ourselves. And sometimes that means combing through our shared history and flinching a little at how quickly those dusty pages can transform into mirrors.

And I think this does bring us back to where we left off Monday’s post on the “lessons of history”:

What makes history useful, argued Robert Zaretsky, is not that it teaches facile morals that hold true at any time or place regardless of shifting context, but that the disciplined study of the past refines our judgment — that is, “our capacity as human beings to draw fully on perception, emotion and reason to respond to new situations in all of their specificity.” Or, to use terms we often throw around in our department, history not only gives us knowledge of the past, but wisdom with which to live skillfully in the present.

Likewise, I don’t find the rhetorical appropriation of the past for contemporary political debates all that useful. It cheapens argument, turning the people of the past into posable mannequins and too often demonizing one’s opponents in the present. By contrast, history — again, the disciplined study of the past — can do much to improve how we live and communicate in the present. It not only makes us more empathetic — to oppressed and oppressor — but more conscious of our own limitations. After all, humans see everything — past, present, and future — but dimly.


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