Being on the wrong side of history

The Correspondent published an interesting Dutch article by Rutger Bregman entitled Zes tekenen dat je aan de verkeerde kant van de geschiedenis staat (Six signs that you are on the wrong side of history). Here I mention some highlights from the article in the hope that you will read the article yourself afterwards.

Being on the wrong side of history

Bregman's explanation of being on the wrong side of history boils down to this:
  • He explains that throughout history societies have seen themselves as very civilized compared to the barbaric societies of their past.
  • However, looking back at those societies themselves, we see that they too committed many acts that we now regard as wrongdoings. Apparently they had blind spots for their own misdeeds after all.
  • The same can be true for us. Future civilizations can look back on ours and see the wrongdoings we commit in our time.
  • We can already recognize those wrongdoings and make morally correct choices or bury our heads in the sand (and thus be on the wrong side of history).

Six clues to recognize the misdeeds of today

Bregman lists six alarm bells or cues to find out what are the things we consider normal now but future generations will look at with horror:
  1. We know what is wrong with it: the arguments why it is wrong are clearly documented and we have had every opportunity to know them.
  2. We say that 'that's the way it is': we can hide behind the three 'N's ': misdeeds of our time are condoned by calling them normal, natural and necessary
  3. We shy away from the inconvenient facts ("I'm really not going to sit and watch that report on factory farming!")
  4. We ridicule moral pioneers
  5. We find it difficult to explain the habit to our children
  6. We suspect that future generations will view the practice as barbaric

Examples: consumerism, retaliation, animal suffering

Bregman describes some examples of habits that are now generally considered normal but may later be seen as morally reprehensible:
  • buying luxury items while people are starving
  • retributing crimes
  • the way we treat animals
He elaborates on the last example. Using the six clues, he shows that this subject has a good chance of being seen as barbaric and immoral by later generations.

Moral pioneers

Bregman concludes with some thoughts on moral pioneers:
  • Moral pioneers are not saints. Moral pioneers in one area (e.g. for the abolition of slavery) we now often consider to be barbaric in other areas (e.g. against equal rights for women).
  • Moral pioneers show courage. They make sacrifices for their beliefs. It is not brave to stand up as an opponent of slavery now. It was when the great majority was in favor of it and saw abolitionists as nasty people.
  • He quotes an American journalist who once remarked, "Society honors its living conformists and its dead troublemakers."

Do you opt for the vanguard or the rearguard?

Some thoughts in conclusion:
  • As individuals, we all make our own choices and choose our own pace.
  • Do we want the comfort of belonging to the majority of conformists? Then there is a chance that we will have to see that more and more people around us go along with the change and that we will eventually belong to a minority. We may also run the risk of having to look back with shame on our choices later on.
  • Do we choose the inconvenience of being a forerunner? Then, we may see that more and more people will join your choice until a majority forms and that we can look back with satisfaction on our choice.
  • Do you lean towards a role in the vanguard or in the rearguard?