Friday, July 3, 2015

The right side of history part 3 : Equality

It's been another long gap between posts. I have been caught up this time in a campaign to save my town's science education facility, The Discovery Centre, from closure. The petition which explains the issue is here. You can make a personal contribution to helping Discovery stay afloat at 

It's been a bit deflating in the process to encounter the sorts of politicians who would leap in front of a banner to Save the Discovery Centre, declare the closure a terrible loss and simultaneously sustain a complete avoidance of any commitment to maintain funding. It's been very disheartening to hear our rates and taxes described as “handouts” and “propping up” as if a children's science museum should be user-pays or rely on the noblesse-oblige of the wealthy. Still, the short of it is that the centre is dearly loved by so many that in the long term council and state are almost certain to support it. There really is no sense in closing Discovery for a pittance of investment then complaining about a lack of engagement in science.

But let's leave the frustrations of local politics behind and talk philosophy instead. Concluding this trilogy of blog posts on The Right Side of History is long overdue and for a while now I've known what I want to say, if not how to say it. Before I try, you may want to refresh your memory with the first two posts, “Trope about Discernment” and “Progress”.

While discussing this topic with a friend of mine and speaking from my own doubts I asked her whether maybe there was no relation between different “good things” of history. Maybe, I mused, “women getting the vote and ending slavery and saving the orangutan from extinction and so on aren't connected enough to put them all on in the same right side of history.”

If this is so then the question I am asking – how to borrow from past moments in which people chose the right side of historical conflicts, some guide to discerning the right side to be on in our own times – falls down. My friends answer was revealing. She said “There probably is some meta-ethic narrative that ties together all the different historical right decisions but I doubt we can know what it is.”*

Firstly I really like “meta-ethic narrative” . It's proably clearer than my own preferred terms of “spirit” or “progress” which each come with their alienating cultural baggage. Narrative just means 
'story' like history is our story, and meta-ethic is a nice way of describing an idea of right and wrong that ties together disparate decision making moments. Hence meta-ethic narrative describes the right side of history fairly well.

Secondly its very important to remember
 the element of unknowability involved in this question. Whatever we are talking about in terms of a right side to history to be on is something glimpsed, only at best partially available to us. In Christian theology this idea of unknowing is sometimes referred to as a condition of “the Fall.” The Fall is the inbetween time that supposedly humanity lives in now, with harmony with God's will behind us in our story and in the future, but absent now. While I disagree with this history I think “the Fall” is well utilised by theologians like William Stringfellow to describe the problematic nature of our attempts to fathom the right side of history. For Stringfellow all things including religion operate inside the Fall and are therefore prone to corruption.

's discussions on the meaning of the Fall describe the type of unknowing that I am talking about. I am very carefully not saying that uncertainty is a quality of those on the right side of history so that we can point to the people who are terribly certain and say they are clearly going wrong. This is I think a mistake we want to rush to make. We are desperate to fill our ignorance in with something. This inspires the fundamentalist drive to elevate texts but it can even make an idol of uncertainty itself. Yet uncertainty, or certainty, can both be qualities of people on the right or wrong sides of history. We are therefore uncertain even if uncertainty is the correct position to hold in any given situation!

We need to be especially mindful of this when examining heroes of history. Heroes of history for example are all likely to be courageous, persistent and imaginative. This is because we identify heroes from the circumstances of them being opposed by great force and yet succeeding. That usually takes courage, imagination and persistence. However it would be wrong to conclude these characteristics put a person on the right side of history. If we broaden our scope we can see those characteristics producing some of histor
y's worst villains as well. Essentially courage, persistence and imagination produce people able to change history for good or ill. We can't make them into idols which would always put us aright.

I view the role of religion in a similar way. Religious beliefs are generally speaking “convictions”, whereas the scientific model of knowing treats beliefs as assumptions. (as discussed in this very old post). Convictions are harder to change than assumptions and therefore we will often see religion serving as a factor in helping historical heroes resist broad social forces, especially when conflict is sharply defined. No surprises though that this can also produce some horrible outcomes too. Not all circumstances involve progress by conflict with broad social forces and sometimes self-questioning is to be found in the necessary toolset of someone on the right side of history rather than conviction. To repeat Stringfellow, everything is under the Fall. Even religious conviction can be corrupted.

So where does this leave this project? Humbled for one thing. Simple answers like suggesting we all need to meditate or think more logically to improve our chance of being on the right side of history wont fly. An idea like “read your bible” is about as historically reliable as “join the workers party” for ensuring a life without historical regret.

However I refuse to believe that the clarity with which I can identify the right side of history in the past is meaningless. I also take comfort from a particular Christian teaching which has always made sense to me; ethics is not rocket science.

Before you scramble for your bible to find out where Jesus mentioned rockets almost two thousand years before we launched one I'm referring to Matthew 7: 9-12
Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”Look, even we who are evil are not so messed up as to not get the basics of right and wrong and give our kids stones for bread (or as the gospel of Luke adds, "a scorpion instead of an egg").

Many people I asked answered this question of how to know the right side of history by relying on the sort of common sense that is found in the bible quote above. My partner's mother said “It always seems that people go wrong when they make themselves more important than other people.”*
As she pointed out arguments like the need for British Sugar to maintain the use of slaves are really just convoluted ways to put the speaker's wants above another's basic needs. We often find that the people on the right side of history, in this case William Wilberforce, didn't do this. He and those with him simply valued the wellbeing of others as much as their own.

For me this notion of equality between self and others needs is at least one essential kernel of the meta-ethic narrative. I used to wear a badge which said “You are among equals”. I enjoyed the way it infuriated the right people and flattered the right people depending on what misconception they laboured under. And for myself, if the badge humbled me or gave me airs it was precisely when whichever dose was required.

Certainly not every kairos question is neatly answered by this notion of equality. But upon reflection a surprising number are. If we look squarely at an issue like Australia's policies towards refugees we can see that every complex argument for harsher border protection simply obscures that Australians are trying to preserve a privileged way of life at the cost of refugee's very lives. While some Australians might be poorer or less safe than a refugee seeking entry most aren't by a huge magnitude. So long as that inequality exists then the right side of history is to be found in refusing to consider it a valid state of affairs. People's conclusions from this recognition may differ but not so wildly that we would ever tolerate covering up systematic child abuse in off-shore detention. 

Equality also gives us a direction for history and a way to recognise where wrong turns were made. Flattening movements like Christianity with its anti-clericalism or Communism with its supposed abolishment of class move away from this right side of history when they throw up new hierarchies and inequalities. There is no guarantee of success implied in this definition of progress. We can't even imagine necessarily from our present what perfect equality might look like. We can however tell when inequality gets worse and when we have chosen the bread for us and the stones for those seeking our help.

*Not exact quotes.