Lately the two terms in the title of the post have been running through my head quite a lot. When you have kids (and students), you find yourself searching for simple ways to express deep thoughts, and I have been trying to think of a simple way to explain why one shouldn’t necessarily go along with the popular movements of the day. It seems as though – especially where I work, at the university – that the minute someone labels an idea as being on the “right side of history,” there is instant pressure to demonstrate support for it. You know, put a sticker on your car, change your Facebook portrait, wear the correct T-shirt, avoid using certain words, and start using others (but not too much or it’ll look fake). What if you don’t go along? What does it mean? There may good reasons to object to any particular movement, but I think there are good reasons to stand back, at least for awhile, from any movement like this. It’s not always good to go along. If you’re asking me to put my heart behind something, it’s not enough to say that “everyone” believes it is on the right side of history. It’s important to have high standards about the things you support.
To put this more simply, two standards that have come to my mind recently are ancient wisdom and common sense. The ancient wisdom idea says, check the claim that a certain movement is on the right side of history. How much history are they talking about? It seems to me that many of the ideas labeled this way have come about only since 1950, although a few of them date to 1800 or 1700. Well, humanity has been around for a lot longer than that. Take for example the proposal of a truly secular society, one where religion is available only in private places and has no voice in the public square. I don’t know of a society where that has happened naturally, and recent attempts to impose it by force have not ended well. Churches thrive again in Albania, as though Communism never happened.
Common sense says, keep the theory to no more than a couple of steps. What I mean by that is, if your train of reasoning contains more than one or two “which implies that” phrases, the conclusion is probably unreliable. I’m talking about human affairs here, of course, not mathematical proofs. Purely conceptual thinking about human affairs dries up after a couple of implications. An example: Factory owners are selfish, therefore they will pay their workers the lowest wage possible, therefore the workers will do better if they own the factory themselves. That’s one too many therefores. Common sense says that running factories to the benefit of the people who work in them isn’t a simple matter of putting employees in charge. Which employees? Who owns what? What is the correct wage? Theory can’t answer these questions, at least not definitively. Common sense tells you that the situation is too complex.
Is this a conservative way of thinking? I suppose so. But conservative voices have their place in the conversation; it’s not terribly bad if a few people say, “Hang on a second.” I admire the work of Jonathan Haidt, who has done so much to clarify the differences between conservative and progressive ways of thinking without condemning either. The current election could certainly use some ancient wisdom and common sense. Who knows? Maybe the follies of our time will bring more people around to this way of thinking.