The 87th And 88th Rationalizations: The Reverse 15 And The Psychic Historian

Translation: “I got nuthin’!'”

I haven’t been in tip-top shape the last several days, making new posts more of an ordeal than they should be. Luckily this motivates me to catch up on updating the Rationalizations List, which has several waiting additions, including these:

Rationalization #15 A. The Reverse 15, or “If I don’t do it ( and I don’t want to) somebody else will.”

The Reverse 15 uses exactly the same excuse as #15. The Futility Illusion:  “If I don’t do it, somebody else will,” but for the opposite purpose. In #15, the rationalizer wants to avoid the consequences of doing something unethical by arguing that his or her refusal to follow orders would have no practical effect: someone else would just step in and do what was demanded anyway. How, asks the fictionalized version of Confederate Captain Henry Wirz in “The Andersonville Trial,” can a post-Civil War military tribunal fairly hold him responsible for cruelly mistreating the Union prisoners in the Georgia prison camp as he was ordered to, when if he refused he would have been shot, and his successor would have abused them anyway?

In 15A, the argument is the opposite. The rationalizer refuses to perform a necessary ethical act out of apathy, callousness or fear, but this was reasonable because he or she was certain that someone else would do the right thing instead. The Reverse 15 could also be called “The Kitty Genovese Rationalization,” recalling that the many people who heard the murdered woman’s screams chose not to “get involves” while convincing themselves that someone would come to her aid. All of the Mount Everest climbers who left a stricken colleague behind to die protested later that they were certain the next climber behind them (or the next, perhaps) would stop to help the man. We pass a stopped car in distress on the highway at night, reasoning that someone else will stop to help, sparing us the trouble.

Sometimes someone does. Sometimes not. This abdication of an ethical duty is accomplished by casting one’s lot, and gambling with the fate of another, while relying on the unpredictable quirks of moral luck. The only ethical decision is to take action. You must do what you know is the ethical act yourself, and not ignore your obligation because you can pass the buck and then argue, disingenuously, “How could I know that everyone else would be as unethical as I am?”

Rationalization #1B. The Psychic Historian, or “I’m On The Right Side Of History”

I decided to put The Psychic Historian under #1, Everybody Does It, because this especially arrogant and annoying rationalization is essentially “Everybody’s going to do it.”  It is an intellectually dishonest argument, indeed no argument at all. Every movement, every dictator, Nazis, Communists, ISIS, the Klan, activists for every conceivable policy across the ideological spectrum, think their position will be vindicated eventually. In truth, they have no idea whether it will or not, or if it is, for how long. If history teaches anything, it is that we have no idea what will happen and what ideas and movements will prevail. “I’m on the right side of history is nothing but the secular version of “God is on our side,” and exactly as unprovable.

We have heard this rationalization a lot during the escalating culture wars. It is a device to sanctify one’s own beliefs while mocking opposing views, evoking an imaginary future that can neither be proven or relied upon. Nor is there any support for the assertion that where history goes is intrinsically and unequivocally good or desirable. Are millions of aborted babies a year “right”? Is the constantly increasing percentage of children born to unmarried couples “right”?

Those who resort to “I’m on the right side of history” (or “You’re on the wrong side”) are telling us that they have run out of honest arguments.

18 Comments

Filed under Government & Politics, History, U.S. Society

18 responses to “The 87th And 88th Rationalizations: The Reverse 15 And The Psychic Historian

  1. Jeff H.

    I’ve had a complicated history of feelings about the anthem protests. I start from a place where I dislike most celebrity protests. But when Trump shot his mouth off about it, whether he was factually right about that they could lose their jobs over it… I suddenly became a lot less comfortable with my opposition. I probably would’ve done it myself just to say, “hey, I have this right to toss my job away for something stupid and inane, but I’m not going to have anyone say that I didn’t do it because YOU said not to.” Just like Obama talking about the Zimmerman-Martin incident, right or wrong, the President talking about something like this never seems to make it better. This is adding to the knot, not cutting it.

    I’ve got more to say about this, but I really only bring this up to give this statement context: I’ve seen people say that Kaepernick’s contributions will be seen as a landmark in civil rights. And I think they are absolute loony fortune tellers. I’m not saying their prediction is right or wrong. I just think they’re fools for trying to make it.

    There’s lots of stuff that I think will be seen as incredibly old-fashioned within a few years, like how long the eventual acceptance of gay marriage took. Nevertheless, trying to emphasize this by saying you’re ‘on the right side of history’ is the sign of someone farting way higher than their ass.

    Nobody ever wonders what particular opinions they treasure will be considered unacceptable and barbarous when they say they’re on the right side of history. I personally am fully in support of essentially all issues involving trans-rights. But maybe my acceptance of this will be seen as barbaric by later societies who will either choose to treat is as a mental illness OR simply re-sequence someone’s genome to make them the gender they wish, rather than slicing them up on an operating table. Maybe they’ll think we should’ve done more to ‘shake them out’ of it. I don’t agree with this from my primitive 2017 perspective, but… who knows what the future holds.

    Think of how different the world was a mere ten years ago. Facebook was a sliver of its current prominence, the iPhone was brand new, and the word Twitter would still get you confused for a defunct electronics store brand. The world changes faster than ever, in ways we can scarcely predict. The future might hold the end of social media, if enough people decide that they realize it’s making them miserable and they’re tired of seeing pictures of Fran’s damn baby.

    I don’t care what people think will be important in the future, outside of science fiction. I care what people think about what’s important now. I’ll learn about what’s important in the future when I get there. And like most of us… I’m taking the long way.

    (don’t make a Ted Williams joke… don’t make a Ted Williams joke…)

    • Comment of the Day.
      I sure wish you would write more often.

      • Jeff H.

        1. I do actually write every day, but like working on my novel and asinine Facebook posts and stuff. I really only want to comment on blogs when I’m REALLY driven to do so, and I have something to contribute.

        2. I don’t think there’s a single time where you’ve given me Comment of the Day where, right after I hit Send, I didn’t think, “Well, this one wasn’t very good.” My writing eye apparently has crap for brains.

        • Everyone’s does. Certainly mine. If I assembled the posts here that I was most proud of, the overlap with the most read and most shared and most commented upon would be minimal.

          Drives me crazy…

  2. Emily

    I have a friend who’s a psychic historian on a grand scale, not only arguing that being progressive is the only way to be proven “right” by history, but preemptively assuring me that whatever his (potential future) grandkids see as progressive, he’s going to support them so that he’s not like all of the uncool old conservatives today.

    I’m hoping he’ll grow out of this.

  3. I can’t help but think their grandchildren and great-grandchilren will have some beliefs they find horrible. You can’t prevent that. That’s the way generations go and to think otherwise is the height of arrogance and dumbth. That’s why the ‘side of history’ just makes me want to laugh and talk to their kids to see it it’s already started.

  4. Steve-O-in-NJ

    I remember both seeing the phrase “the right side of history” and saying it myself 14 or so years ago in support of GWB’s attempt to remake the Islamic world. The Taliban had been scattered, Saddam Hussein was toppled, Gaddafi was giving up his dreams of becoming a pan-Arab power, Assad had withdrawn from Lebanon, Mohammed Abu Abbas, of Achille Lauro fame, had died in obscurity. It looked like radical Islam, even Islam generally, was everywhere in retreat. I think what I said was that “the wheel of history had gone around on the Islamic dictator class, and that George W. Bush had given it the necessary shove” and boy, did those liberals who had given him all kinds of grief about launching the War on Terror look stupid now.

    I also remember folks saying that history as we knew it was ending in 1989-92ish, as the Soviet superstate fell apart and the red side of the chessboard that had move so carefully and deliberately for 45 years lost its king. Some went so far as to say that GHWB would be the last Republican president, since the GOP had now lost its defining issue, and others went so far as to pronounce war obsolete.

    It wasn’t all that long ago that a lot of folks were saying a lot of the same stuff as a Senator one-third through his first term named Barack Hussein Obama became the 44th President of the United States. The GOP was done, racial divisions were done, and this was the moment “our planet began to heal.”

    History has many turning points, and every so often those of us blessed/cursed to “live in interesting times” may think we are witnessing the change that will finally put us on the road to Camelot/Eden/the City Beyond Beauty, where peace and prosperity will reign and everyone will enjoy his portion of happiness and justice. More than a few of us might think we, and the ideas we espouse and push, are pushing the world onto the path to that place.

    Each time, though, we’ve found out that, in the words Gene Roddenberry put into Captain James T. Kirk’s mouth in the last Star Trek movie with the original crew, “we haven’t run out of history just yet,” and more than a few times, most recently last year when everyone on the left was so cocksure Hillary would be the 45th President and everything Obama had done would congeal into a cement bridge on that path to the perfect place, the advocates of that path have stood defeated in the ashes of their grand plan asking each other “what happened? Where did we go wrong?” As often as not, they went from strength to strength one too many times, believed their own words a bit too truly, decided either God or fate was on their side because they were right, didn’t listen to warnings, consider the lessons of the past or stop to consider where the future might go wrong, and you know the rest.

    The right side of history? There’s nothing left of the Victorian Age but oversized buildings and overly ornate monuments. There’s nothing left of the Soviet superstate but cheap museum junk and red banners faded to pink. Our attempt to remake the Islamic world whitened the sand with its bones. Obama left this nation no better than, and in a lot of cases worse than, he found it, and Hillary’s attempt to become the goddess of a new age of promises is nothing but dust and ashes. They all thought they were on the right side of history.

    Here’s the secret, if I may: There is no right and wrong side of history, there is only history, and there is only right and wrong. History exists only to record the facts as best they come down to us. Right and wrong exist only as we understand them from various factors, including, but not limited to, the facts of history. Facts are never right or wrong, they are only correct or incorrect. The right and wrong are as often as not put on the facts by those who interpret them, and we who interpret them are just people, as capable of getting it right or wrong as those who made the history in the first place, and as often as not guilty of presentism, often forgetting, in the words of one of those great historical personages with achievements and flaws to spare, that if we see farther, it is because we stand on the shoulders of those who went before us. He who stands on our shoulders later may see things quite differently.

    • dragin_dragon

      Thank you, Steve, for putting into words something I have been feeling for some time but have been unable to articulate. History is not a current, or a driving force, it is a recording of facts. Some of those facts will effect other events down the road, and those events will be recorded as facts, as well, but that’s it. History has no sides.

  5. Other Bill

    I very often want to ask a lefty: “Have you ever considered the possibility you might be wrong?” About welfare, diversity, affirmative action, open borders, globalism, income inequality, global warming (or is it climate change) or any other number of tenets of the lefty catechism. I just think most thoughtful conservatives have a fairly strong skeptical streak that’s missing from lefties.I guess I always kind of admired good old doubting Thomas. If FDR or JFK suddenly appeared at a dinner I was attending, I’d kind of want to make sure it was really him.

    • Steve-O-in-NJ

      Most lefties are either true believers or cynics using the true believers.

    • Eternal Optometrist

      How about have you ever considered the possibility you might be wrong or, at a minimum, that a person who holds a contrary view to you is not necessarily evil, bent on world destruction, or “gross” (a term under on EA recently).

      • Steve-O-in-NJ

        Charles Krauthammer said it best: conservatives think liberals are dumb, liberals think conservatives are evil.

        • Other Bill

          Maybe it’s a temperament thing. I remember talking to a Yale Law School graduate lawyer in town. I explained to him one of the reasons I’d retired was that I was a worrier and I worried too much about having screwed up. He got this startled, blank look on his face before saying, and I am not making this up, “The thought that I’ve ever made a mistake has never even
          occurred to me!” I was dumbfounded. Particularly because, if memory serves me right, I remember hearing he’d been responsible for a big RTC related malpractice settlement his firm had been pulled into. He and his wife are reliably lefty activists.

  6. Isaac

    “Right side of history” is an automatic declaration of ignorance. It’s a sure sign that you’re an empty barrel (I’m appropriating this term from now on) who just hasn’t made contact with very many primary or even secondary historic writings of any kind. To actually think that history has “sides” or is in any way directional is just foolish.

    Consider the term “right side of history” in relation to gay marriage (it seems to have been popularized by that issue, but that’s just my perception.) If the acceptance of homosexuality as healthy and positive is the “right side of history” then why was homosexuality accepted and considered normal and even desirable in 1st century Rome? Was the Roman empire, filled with actual institutionalized misogyny, slavery, and oppression, the “right” side of history, and then history got “wrong” later? Doesn’t that imply that history has more than two sides?

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