Try not to be the Bad Guy in the story: What it means to be ‘on the wrong side of history’

David Fitch has written a thoughtful, Anabaptist-y essay on his discomfort with arguments and rhetoric about “the wrong side of history.” He cites Foucault and Donald Dayton, and sort of generally appeals to a Howard Zinn/Stanley Hauerwas vibe. All quite commendable in the way that most thoughtful, Anabaptist-y things are commendable in their suspicion of power.

But all, also, very much beside the point.

Not even beside it, really, since that implies its still somewhat point-adjacent, and this whole pondering of the meaning of history and power — while valuable on its own — is so far removed from the actual meaning of “the wrong side of history” that it might take one several days to walk from there all the way back to the point itself.

I don’t mean to single out Fitch. This is true of the entire wave of recent thumb-sucking think pieces fretting about the use of that phrase. They tend to be thoughtful and well-reasoned. But they also tend to be such aggressive exercises in missing the point that one starts to wonder if they aren’t actually exercises in evading the point.

Take, for example, this post from a few months back from Fitch’s Northern Seminary colleague Scot McKnight. McKnight offers a really excellent critique of the assumption of inevitable progress, the arrogance of certainty about the future and the arrogance of certainty about one’s own righteousness. It’s quite good and I heartily agree with all of his points.

Or, rather, I would agree with all of those points if he weren’t trying to apply them to rhetoric about “the wrong side of history.” Because that’s not at all what that’s about.

The rhetoric of “the wrong side of history” is not an appeal to arrogant Hegelian certainty any more than it is a Constantinian plea for affirmation by the emperor. It’s about not having little pictures of skulls on your hat.

Here is everything you need to know about the meaning of “the wrong side of history”:

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Mitchell and Webb cut to the key question underlying all of the rhetoric and argument about TWSOH: “Are we the baddies?”

While skulls on your hat are a dead giveaway, usually it’s not as obvious or as easy to tell what the answer to that question is or will turn out to be.

But it’s an absolutely necessary question. And — contrary to all the noble-sounding fretting about the supposed “arrogance” of talk of TWSOH — it is a question that can only be asked or answered from a place of humility.

This man lost. His side lost. But he was not on "the wrong side of history" because he is the good guy in this story.

This man lost. His side lost. But he was not on “the wrong side of history” because he is the good guy in this story.

I think the confusion here comes from the use of the word “history,” which these days connotes an academic discipline more than Clio’s art of story-telling. “The wrong side of history” isn’t really about that academic discipline — about the assessment of future historians. It’s about stories.

TWSOH is not a claim about the future, but a claim about the present — about what’s happening right now. And it’s not a claim about winners or losers or about the inevitable progress of the dialectic. It’s about good guys and bad guys.

Every rhetorical invocation of TWSOH is an invitation to ask Mitchell and Webb’s question: “Are we the baddies?” (Or, if you want a more highbrow formulation, we can paraphrase Dickens: “Shall we turn out to be the heroes of our own story?”)

The sheriff of Hadleyville was the good guy. The sheriff of Nottingham was the bad guy. Neither of those (probably) is a certifiably “historic” figure, but it still makes sense to say that former was on the right side of history while the latter was on the wrong side of it. Yes, these are “only” stories — not real history. But stories matter.

The stories of the sheriff of Hadleyville and the sheriff of Nottingham inform how we evaluate the real-life story of the sheriff of Birmingham. Bull Connor was on the wrong side of history.

That is obvious now, and it was obvious then. He was the baddie. We don’t say this because the imperial power of the state ultimately sided against him. We don’t say this because of some arrogant claim of inevitable, dialectical progress, or even because of some humbler assertion of eschatological faith in the long-bending arc of the moral universe. We say this because there’s no other way to tell this story.

That is the point that all these beside-the-point think pieces about TWSOH evade: Don’t be the bad guy.

Sure, the bad guys sometimes win — more often in real life than in stories. But even the histories written by the victors can’t turn the bad guys into good guys. They can be portrayed as sympathetic, charismatic villains — like Stonewall Jackson or Alan Rickman in Die Hard. But whatever charms or noble qualities we can admire in them, the bottom line is still that murderous thieves who violently imprison innocent people as hostages can’t be made out to be the good guys in the story. (And that’s true for Hans Gruber, too.)

Here is where those especially desperate to evade the point will usually invoke Solzhenitsyn: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

Profoundly true and terribly important. But that has nothing to do with what we’re talking about here.

We’re not talking about human nature or calling for the separation and destruction of all the Children of Darkness. Nor are we suggesting that the baddies are all bad. Cersei Lannister loves her children. Jefferson Davis was “an outgoing, friendly man, a great family man.” And “not many people knew about it, but the Fuhrer was a terrific dancer.”

That has nothing to do with TWSOH. It’s not about intrinsic good and evil, but about the roles we choose to play in the story.

The key word in the phrase “the wrong side of history” is not history, but side. It isn’t an invitation to ponder ponderous thoughts about the meaning of history or an invitation to project ourselves into some dubious future vantage point in an attempt to step outside of the fog of our own culture and time. It is simply a recognition that we have, in the present story presently unfolding, taken sides.

Realizing that, the next extremely necessary question to ask is simply this: Are we the baddies? Is there any way to tell this story that makes our side out to be the good guys?

Check your hat. See if there’s a skull on it. Then check your consequences. Look for skulls there too. That’s the point.

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