A guilt-free ride on the wrong side of history

Even as a hedging sceptic without a party to call home, I still find it easy to forget how differently other people see the world. This amnesia is most obvious when I notice that somebody else differs not just on the topic at hand but on a big assumption that lies underneath.

A video by the YouTuber Leena Norms in which she ‘call herself out’ for political apathy reminded me of this. I’ve met Leena a handful of times and we’ve appeared on each others’ podcasts, including one time in which I explained what it was like to be a leave voter while not being a particularly typical leave voter. I think it’s fair to say she is leftwing and probably thinks of me as rightwing, if only mildly.

In the video Leena outs herself as guilty. Not of a crime, mind. Rather she feels guilty that she’s not adequately supporting the fight against racism, coronavirus, and climate change. The coronavirus pandemic may have been the trigger for the video, but it examines a wider Western lifestyle that she argues is built on exploiting sweat shop labour, damaging climate change, and general bad things.

I agree that contemporary Westerners are largely the luckiest bastards in this planet’s history, mostly arriving in functional societies with good public services, reasonable economies, a low chance of being murdered and all the benefits that the ‘chart goes up’ crowd of Steven Pinker like to talk about. Such privileges have been largely absent from history and remain absent from many people’s lives today.

To the extent that being ‘progressive’ means something distinct from ‘leftwinger’ – which I’ve already tarred Leena with – it signals a belief in a kind of Pinkerish progress in morality. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” as Martin Luther King had it, alongside plenty before him.

The assumed course of human affairs is likewise referenced when people like Owen Jones accuse their opponents of being on ‘the wrong side of history’. There is a sense that human progress is preordained, whether by a god, the relentless pressure of market forces or whatever else.

Such logic is inherent in Leena’s discussion about The Reader, a film that discusses the guilt (legal and moral) of a Nazi concentration camp guard. Within it is a critique of the Nuremberg defence that one was just following orders when doing something beastly.

Of course, behaviour is rarely viewed the same by contemporaries and posterity, which is why you should never ask for a statue in your will. To survive a Nuremberg trial requires you to anticipate what the authorities of the future (in that case the victorious Allies) will consider legal or moral. Failure to do so will condemn you to the wrong side of history (or at least the wrong side of some future era’s history, which may also itself be superseded).

Leena’s video quotes an appropriate meme she found while scrolling Instagram that touches on this, “If you’ve ever wondered what you’d do during slavery, the Holocaust, or civil rights movement: you’re doing it right now.” “Right now” could stand in for the crisis of the day or our general way of life. You are always, in a sense, on trial.

I’ve long thought such questions are stupid: people are bad at predicting how they’d react in unfamiliar events. (Actually, people are just bad at prediction.) But it’s stupid in another sense: in a different time and different place you would be a different person with different beliefs, values and whatever else. Fervent atheists today might be fervent protestants in 1600, and so on.

The iconoclasts of recent weeks are convinced of their righteousness, not just for our time, but for all time. The funny thing is that sentence could be printed any week and still be correct. Even those who erected the statues now being felled were similarly confident that their values would endure.

And although I think I’d agree with Leena (and Pinker) that a lot of progress has been made in technology, medicine and general governance, moral progress seems more ambiguous. Even in my own lifetime the confident predictions from Silicon Valley that privacy is dead, the internet will create a borderless world, or that the free press could survive without paywalls seem premature – to be nice about it.

Disposition is probably the biggest influence in people’s emotional response to politics, so much of the above is leading to a post hoc rationalisation. That disclaimer given, I suspect that Leena’s guilt about her apathy stems partly from confidence about what side of history is right. She has seen her own Nuremberg trial and doesn’t much like it.

By comparison, I don’t see politics as a great march towards utopia, but an ongoing skirmish between conflicting interests. Little of it is inevitable even if some of it is likely in the long-run, and morally a lot of it is ambiguous. There are case where improving human wellbeing is clear cut, to paraphrase Sam Harris’s view on moral progress, but most politics is contested and it’s unclear which views should or will prevail. (Again, people are bad at predictions.)

The Nuremberg fear is not unique to lefties though. Twitter rightwingers often express fear about being up against a committee against wrongthink in the near future. To be fair to them, we already have laws on the book against ‘hate speech’, a term whose definition could grow to cavernous proportions in the hands of the right judge. Some on the left even seem keen about such a development.

Accurate or otherwise, such conservative fears are just as romantic as those of crusading leftwingers inching us towards utopia. This can be seen in the Mail columnist Peter Hitchens’ description of himself as an obituarist, or even in UnHerd editor Ed West’s self-glorifying book title: Small Men on the Wrong Side of History. Being a loser has its own mythology.

What both these self-declared winners and losers shares is confidence in history’s outcome. These are the kind of people that look at Pinker’s charts and extrapolate in a straight line towards the future, one from a straightforwardly Whiggish perspective of inevitable progress, the other an anti-Whiggish view of inevitable regress.

The reality is that history is uncertain. Right now it looks like this century will be dominated by an autocratic China, but thirty years ago the wise minds thought that the economic opening of the country would convert it to liberal democracy. People are, again, bad at predictions.

So unlike Leena I don’t sit on the bog idly scrolling through social media and feeling guilty that I’ve not done my bit for the struggle. Usually I’m ambivalent on what is being struggled against. I think you should be ambivalent too – and hope that any blogs to this effect do not resurface in your trial some twenty years hence.

Jimmy Nicholls
Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact jimmy@rightdishonourable.com

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