Here are 10 cases of ideas or theories that were once widely believed to be the truth, but most definitely ended up on the Wrong Side of History – some are moral, some technological, and some philosophical. Through today’s modern lens, some of these will appear ridiculous or even repugnant. Yet at the time, in their day, they were deemed FACT and perfectly correct and acceptable. Some of them may even give you a rather unsettling sense of déjà vu.
1) Women’s Suffrage
To quote some prominent male politicians at the turn of 1900’s: “Women will only vote as their husbands tell them too. Giving the vote to radical women will risk the common good and offers absolutely no benefit! More women voting than men will place the Government under petticoat rule.” These arguments sound crazy when heard today, but the Women’s Suffrage movement in the United States lasted 71 long years, from the New York Seneca Convention in 1848, all the way to the passage of the U.S. Constitution’s 19th Amendment in 1919 – finally giving women the right to vote same as men. Names like Elizabeth Stanton, Lucrecia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony are legendary suffragettes. All that was only 100 years ago, by the way.
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled in 1858 that American slaves were “so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his own benefit.” The American slaves were emancipated by President Abraham Lincoln during the U.S. Civil War in 1862. They were later freed by the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment; given citizenship in the 14th; and the right to vote in the 15th Amendment. Nevertheless, racial discrimination and rampant segregation continued for another hundred years until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And not just in the U.S. South, with its so-called Jim Crow Laws, but in fact discrimination and segregation around the entire world.
Here’s a quote by William Jennings Bryan from the famous Scopes “Monkey” trial of 1925. ‘Evolution is only a fanciful theory, that cannot be proven by science.’ It was once against the law for teachers to talk about evolution in the classroom. Naturalist Charles Darwin published his famous book On the Origin of Species in 1859. We have centuries of carbon-dated fossil remains as evidence of multiple dinosaur species and Neanderthals. Yet despite those facts, we still have some ‘Creationists’ promoting a pro-Genesis / anti-Science stance to this day, demanding equal time in public school curriculums and history books. Distrust of new scientific discoveries is not uncommon throughout our history. One need only look at astronomy – the church imprisoning Galileo for stating the Earth revolved around the sun, or medicine and today’s anti-mask/anti-vaccine movement.
Following the publication of his famous manifesto, German Karl Marx proclaimed in 1848, “Religion is the opium of the masses. Communism may be summed up in a single sentence: Abolition of private property.” Everything was eventually owned and planned by the totalitarian Communist Party. Religion and human rights were often brutally suppressed. Throughout recent history, whether lead by Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, Nikita Khrushchev, or Mikhail Gorbachev, the failure and ultimate collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the once mighty Soviet Union (USSR) in 1991 proves otherwise. Enough said on the past. Today’s modern Communist nations, like China, Cuba and Vietnam, are more free market capitalists than Marxist, and are slowly becoming more ‘democratic’ with each passing decade and new generation of young people.
5) Internal combustion engine
“Why you’re crazy if you think that fool contraption will ever displace a good horse.” That was a common refrain heard in the late 1800’s when German Karl Benz invented the new motor wagon. Horseless buggies were indeed a curious, noisy, smelly and expensive novelty. That is until American Henry Ford invented the automotive assembly line and the cheap, ubiquitous Model T car in 1913. He was able to mass produce cars that the average family could now afford, not just the wealthy. Coal steam engines in trains, ships, factories and power plants slowly faded away to diesel engines. Drugstores first began selling gasoline in cans, then stand alone gas stations appeared like mushrooms on the landscape, and the rest, as they say, is history. Think electric vehicles are the future? ‘Why you’re crazy if you think that fool contraption will ever replace a good …’
6) Man-powered flight
‘If God had meant man to fly, he’d have given him wings.’ That unattributed quote was often repeated in the late 1800’s when man first seriously attempted man-powered flight. But it did not originate from the time of the Wright Brothers and Kitty Hawk. It came rather as the challenge that the brilliant inventor and artist Leonardo de Vinci received from his benefactors during the Italian Renaissance in 1485. Leonardo went on to design numerous successful gliders and unsuccessful flying machines. His sketches and models inspired two brothers who owned a bicycle shop in Ohio to build an airplane in 1903 and fly it on a beach in North Carolina. It’s since inspired others famous aviators, from Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes to Sir Richard Branson and Elon Musk. Try to imagine a world today without frequent and inexpensive global airline travel.
7) Flat Earth
The idea of a spherical planet goes back as far as the Greek philosopher Aristotle, long before the Nordic Vikings and Cristobal Columbus sailed the Earth’s oceans to prove it true. Yet despite thousands of images from the Apollo Moon Missions to the current International Space Station, we still have the Flat Earth Society, started in 1956 by Samuel Shelton, a member of the British Royal Geographical Society. Seemingly rational people believe in such outlandish conspiracy theories for a variety of reasons, usually to explain random events with some sinister plot, or for a sense of social belonging to a like-minded group of people who think they alone know the secret truth. Just think of JFK’s assassination claims, faked Apollo moon landings, Roswell, NM and Area 51, or COVID being engineered in China. Apparently for some conspiracy theorists, even seeing is not believing.
8) Rock and Roll
Posters and pastors in the 1950’s loudly proclaimed: “Rock and Roll is the Devil’s music! Don’t Buy Negro Records. That savage music is undermining the morals of today’s youth.’ That last part sound familiar perhaps to current generations? The images of young, integrated black & white audiences dancing together at concerts shocked social conservatives of the 1950’s Rock-n-Roll was invented by the likes of legendary Black American musicians like Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. This of course led to Elvis Presley’s swiveling hips, John Lennon’s Jesus quote, Woodstock‘s stoned hippies, Acid Rock’s big hair bands, Hip-Hop’s poetry to a beat, and on and on. Today, Baby Boomer grandparents who grew up listening to the Beatles and Rolling Stones, now say to their grandkids, “What the heck is that music you’re listening too? Why back in the day we had …”
Here is a blunt and stark quote from the past: ‘Those immigrants are dangerous criminals, they’re barbaric pagans, send them all back where they came from!’ Heard that from politicians recently? Try the 1850’s when it was directed at the Irish immigrants coming to America (not Muslims or Asians or Latinos). After the Irish wave came New York’s Ellis Island and the Italians, Swedes, Germans, Poles, Greeks, Turks and many more. We are a global planet with legal boundaries made by humans, not God. Boundaries can and often do shift with each war and generation. Every country has benefited in one way or another from waves of immigration, going as far back as Italian Marco Polo and China in 1295. Yet the ‘Us vs Them‘ knee-jerk mentality sadly continues to this day, even from those whose own great-grandparents were once struggling immigrants themselves. How quickly we forget.
10) Climate Change
The effects on our global climate from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil or natural gas have been known since the 1960’s. It was known that the building up of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, from doing so were slowly warming our planet. Yet decades of petroleum industry and lobbied political propaganda convinced the public it was all fake. All those intellectual, elite scientists were dead wrong. There was no harm at all so keep buying gas. Today we know different. Our atmosphere and oceans have warmed, melting glaciers, creating sea level rise, causing devastating droughts, brutal winter storms, and castastrophic flooding. Even worse, because of a lack of political will today, we may have reached the point of no return – cursing our future grandchildren to a preventable climate crisis of our own making.
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So how do we determine if an idea or concept in question Today will be on the Wrong Side of History tomorrow? Well get out your crystal ball and tarot cards, for we often cannot. Social or moral issues, for example, are not based on science. ‘Only time will tell,’ as the old saying goes. Does it mean that the history that survived the test of time was “Right” in the end? Not necessarily. Slavery and even genocide, were legally justified in one form or another by many civilizations for thousands of years, up to the Nazi Holocaust. Remember, he who wins the war, gets to right (or rewrite) the history.
Plus, to state another sad truth – if you repeat a lie often enough, people will eventually believe it. Our current, instant internet culture has only magnified that fact. Just like with wars, the winner isn’t always Right, just stronger in the end … at least for the time being. As a modern, rational society, we like to think that logic, science, and morality will win out in the end, don’t we? That in the long run, absurd or immoral, or even EVIL ideas may have their days in the sun; but then like roaches or weeds, they are eventually removed. However, they never quite Die, do they?
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