William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

The Wrong-Side-Of-History Fallacy

Ride 'em, cowboys!

Ride ’em, cowboys!

I’m on the road for the next several days and won’t always have access to the Internet. So I’m reposting a series of classic fallacies. Regular service to resume early next week. This post originally appeared on 5 March 2014.

If there’s one fallacy the Enlightened love more than any other, it’s this one. Invoking it is a pure self-esteem boost; it jolts the system like a small shot of espresso. Says to the utter to himself, “Boy, are you something: how far above the others you are!”

Statistical proof of the fallacy’s standing comes from New York‘s “‘Wrong Side of History’ Seems to Be on the Right Side of It”, which showed the phrase appeared over 1,800 times in bien pensant organs in 2013, up from 500 in 2006. The magazine calls the fallacy “the soft bullet of utter dismissiveness” and that “[p]rogressives have made it their mark of Zorro.” (Also showing explosive growth is the logically equivalent “The right side of history”.)

Examples.

Our dear leader, perhaps fatigued from delaying Obamacare one more time, said of Vladimir Putin’s entry into Crimea that the Russian ruler was “on the wrong side of history“. Mr Obama meant that it was politically and morally wrong for Putin to have done this because on this side of history, these actions are wrong.

If that’s so, then there was a date at which invasions like this were not wrong, and not wrong is right, or at least acceptable. Before (say) 1789, mankind was in darkness, brutish, ignorant, and in agreement that territorial expansion was the bees knees. Then, somehow—nobody knows how, perhaps a miracle—the light appeared! Mankind (womankind, too!) stepped into the blazing sun of truth and, aided by the guillotine, expunged the blackness.

Unfortunately, guillotines dull, the hangman’s rope wears, and the axeman’s arm tires. So there are still a few unenlightened wandering to and fro, literally mired in the wrong-side-of-history. What these folks need is a stern “dialoging”, they need their “awareness raised”, they need “exposure” to new ideas. Then the world will glow.

Or Mr Obama’s statement might imply not an Enlightenment but a gradual shift. After some date (say) 2000, sufficient numbers of mankind voted against incursions. This carries the idea that if sufficient numbers hadn’t, then incursions would till be dandy. In other words, moral and political truths are defined by votes. A lovely and clear, but appallingly frightening idea. Any demagogue with a pretty tongue can make “truth.”

Whoopi “It Wasn’t Rape-Rape” Goldberg lectured Nigerian and Ugandan presidents Goodluck Jonathan (I adore his name) and Yoweri Museveni on their countries’ adoption of laws to discourage man-on-man sex. “People,” she said, “Would face up to seven years in jail for promoting equality.” “Wrong side of history,” she said. There is no logical difference between Goldberg’s and Obama’s arguments, except that Goldberg was careful to say “My opinion” several times.

Notice, and notice with all your might, that neither Obama nor Goldberg nor anybody who uses this fallacy offer as argument anything but the fallacy. Mr Obama did not say why Mr Putin’s actions were wrong other than they were on the “wrong side of history.” Obama may have had other arguments but he assumed everybody knew them and, a fortiori, that everybody accepted them, even Mr Putin. Since Mr Putin obviously did not accept them, as anybody exposed to these missing-but-tacit arguments obviously should have, then something is wrong with Putin. Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested a weak form of mental illness, and others are eagerly believing this.

Goldberg, and the Goldberg inside all progressives, acted identically. The arguments which purport to show man-on-man sex is moral and that marriage should be redefined are never stated, they are assumed. “Equality” as Goldberg used the word is like an incantation, meant to be all the proof needed.

Longtime reader Luís Dias contributed this last example, which shows the “wrong side” isn’t always a fallacy. Suppose you and a friend witness a guy clonking another on the head with a portable plastic newspaper kiosk and your friend says to you, “How medieval.” Your friend is clearly not saying the action is wrong because a preferred method of dispatching enemies in the eleventh century was conking, only that that method was then popular.

But people often use “It’s medieval” fallaciously, particularly with regard to cultural institutions like the Catholic Church, calling its rules “medieval” and therefore wrong. Of course, the Church got its start well before the medieval period, so not only do people argue badly, their grasp of history is like a drunken ninety-year-old arthritic’s who lost two fingers in a hunting accident.

Update Apropos from George Will:

…Secretary of State John Kerry: “It’s a 19th-century act in the 21st century. It really puts at question Russia’s capacity to be within the G8.”

Although this “19th-century act” resembles many 20th century (and 16th, 17th and 18th century) acts, it is, the flabbergasted Kerry thinks, astonishing in the 21st century, which he evidently supposes to be entirely unlike any other. What is more disconcerting—that Kerry believes this?…

31 Comments

  1. You are correct that in her video blurb, Whoopi didn’t make a full nuanced phd dissertation length argument argument about why the presidents of Uganda and Nigeria’s are wrong including an explanation of why inequality is wrong and so on. But you are incorrect that she suggests these sorts of laws used to be ok but now that’s changed. At 1:43, she ways “it was wrong. Was. Past tense.

    Her argument seems to be that these sorts of laws were wrong and now people are recognizing they were wrong and of course still are wrong.

    You may not agree with her position or think that she should have written a treatise as long as things Aquinas wrote. But you have mistaken her actual argument.

  2. Briggs

    March 5, 2014 at 10:48 am

    Lucia,

    Nope. Her speech not even coherent enough to say which tense she used, in the sense that the dates she had in mind aren’t discernible. But the WSOH fallacy is there in all its glory. (Start at 1:20.)

    Plus you missed the part where I said that she might well have had other arguments, even extending to PhD length, but that she assumed everybody who knew these would automatically be converted by them.

    Anyway, I refute you by saying, Equality!

  3. “their grasp history is like a drunken ninety-year-old arthritic’s who lost two fingers in a hunting accident.” Not a good sentence from which to omit a word.

  4. Interesting analysis here: https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/15987/meaning-of-the-phrase-the-wrong-side-of-history

    Seems to be a favourite phrase of American presidents.

  5. Briggs

    March 5, 2014 at 11:10 am

    Rich,

    Arrgh! My enemies have really been having their way with me lately!

  6. Matt

    Nope. Her speech not even coherent enough to say which tense she used

    Wrong. It was coherent enough to hear her use of ‘was’.

    Plus you missed the part where I said that she might well have had other arguments,

    I didn’t miss that part and have no idea why you think I missed it.

    You mistated her argument by not listening to it carefully.

  7. Fletcher Christian

    March 5, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    The Church got its start well before the mediaeval period, that’s quite true. However, many of the tenets and practices of the Church arose about then. Including papal infallibility (complicated, but sometime in the 14th century generally accepted)and Aristotelian physics and cosmology. The latter might not seem important, but since at least one martyr to the truth was burned at the stake for denying it…

  8. WSOH expresses a progressive world view. I mean “progressive” quite literally. The view that there is a societal / moral / political / economic train of progress through history, from a brutal, unfair, unjust, toward some perfectionist goal.

    If you are on the wrong side, you are the brutal, unfair and unjust and what “we” are trying to move away from.

  9. Also here: http://pjmedia.com/blog/wrong-side-of-history/?singlepage=true

    Maybe presidents are fond of this phrase since they are always concerned with their historical legacy, especially in the second term of office.

  10. I understood “wrong side of history” to mean “years from now people will know that you are wrong and I am right.” Briggs is correct that it is not a real argument; it’s more like a placeholder for an argument.

  11. The original Mr. X

    March 5, 2014 at 2:41 pm

    It’s also worth noting that, unless we suppose support for gay marriage to be irreversible — and I see no reason to suppose that is the case, and several reasons to suppose that it isn’t — gay marriage supporters will themselves be seen one day as on the wrong side of history.

  12. The original Mr. X

    March 5, 2014 at 2:42 pm

    “The latter might not seem important, but since at least one martyr to the truth was burned at the stake for denying it…”

    Which one was that then?

  13. Briggs, who would you say deified history so that it becomes the moral standard for judgment nowadays — Karl Marx, maybe?

  14. And what do you suppose that Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin thinks about all these negative comments about him?
    Nothing! “Wolves don’t lose sleep over the opinion of sheep”.

  15. Marxism considers history a metaphysical force which will inevitably progress to the socialist utopia, so if you are on the wrong side of history it will roll over you like a metaphysical steam roller and you will end up in the metaphysical Dempster Dumpster of history. Of course, as Orwell pointed out, you have to be an intellectual to believe such nonsense

  16. Fletcher Christian

    March 5, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    Mr. X – Giordano Bruno. (Spelling?)

  17. I believe the President’s statement that the Crimean invasion was on the “wrong side of history” is entirely accurate. If you recall, this was a central cause of World War 2 when Germany, Japan and Italy ran amok grabbing whole countries and creating empires and the rest of the whole freaking world ended up beating them to a pulp to stop them. Postwar, the world created the United Nations to prevent invasion and war. Also, the US policy was to promote former colonies becoming independent.

    Now I don’t usually defend the crazy shit that comes out of anybody in Washington, DC, but in this instance there is a clear point in history when civilization said “no more land grabs; that’s so yesterday”.

  18. Bravo! Can you, please, add LiveJournal share button?

  19. Briggs

    March 6, 2014 at 9:15 am

    Lucia,

    Well, in the interest of universal harmony, I’ll say she started with the WSOH fallacy, then said “was” which could be interpreted as you claim, then said it was “just” her “opinion.” Conclusion? Laziness on my part for not finding a better example. There are hundreds, too. Do a quick search and prove it to yourself. Use this string “wrong side of history -obama -putin.”

    Igor,

    Love to. But how?

  20. Time marches on leaving history behind us and placing the future ahead of us. Only the dead have history, OUR history, in THEIR future. To be on the wrong side of history means that you are dead.

  21. A more up to date version of “on the wrong side of history” might be, “been there, done that.”

  22. If I may interject. Go back into your history books and look up the foundation of Novgorod by the Vikings. These traders were using the long route from the Baltic to the Black Sea which brought them over land to the Dneiper river. These were called Rus’ They set up a prosperous kingdom in Kiev trading from the Scandinavian homelands through the Black Sea with Constantinople and into the Mediterrean as far as Alexandria. Their royal family reigned as Russian Czars for centuries. So it’s not Russia moving into a foreign country. This is where Rus became Russians. The oldest Orthodox Church in Russia was in the Crimea. This is more like Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland – closely related but at loggerheads. The problem is exacerbated by the EU trying to move in on a valuable trade route which has been disputed for centuries.

  23. Mr. X, if you want to believe ‘gay marriage’ is reversible you should be able to point us to some other program of the progressives that has ever been turned back. To date the ratchet only goes one direction. Occasionally the Red Team manages to slow the rate of decline but never reverse it.

  24. It is not that simple, there are debates that the transfer of the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 was illegitimate.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1954_transfer_of_Crimea

  25. If Fletcher Christian is referring to Giordano Bruno being burned at the stake, it was not for his cosmology, but for heresy
    “Bruno was not condemned for his defence [sic] of the Copernican system of astronomy, nor for his doctrine of the plurality of inhabited worlds, but for his theological errors, among which were the following: that Christ was not God but merely an unusually skillful magician, that the Holy Ghost is the soul of the world, that the Devil will be saved, etc.” Giordano Bruno, The Catholic Encyclopedia
    And I will agree that burning at the stake for heresy is not right, but “autre temps, autre moeurs”

  26. It should be noted that history is written by the winners. You know the old joke:
    Question: What’s the difference between a language and a dialect?
    Answer: It depends on how good was your army.

  27. …of course, some of us note that the things we identify as “bad” in the Catholic Church actually were innovations of the Medieval period. To say the Catholic Church is Medieval, therefore, is not to say that all of the RCC is Medieval, but rather to make the argument that it carries with it these Medieval innovations contrary to early (and correct) Church teaching. *cough Council of Trent cough*

  28. Which is the wrong side of history for marriage equality – the future or the past?

  29. The wrong side of history is that of the defeated.

    JMJ

  30. I figured the “wrong side of history” argument to be an opportunistic cop-out rather than a full-fledged fallacy. It satisfies the constituency’s need for validation while being vague and non-confrontational enough to avoid having to take a real stand on the issue.
    “Annexing Crimea wasn’t cool, brah! Just sayin…”-like. You know, don’t poke the bear! Especially when a demented Russian is riding it…

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