Marriage equality has a new catchphrase. As the issue is gathering record momentum in the United States, support for the policy is repeatedly referred to as standing on “the right side of history.” Though the idiom wasn’t coined yesterday, it has been trending in the headlines for a year or so, almost consistently referring to advocating for marriage equality. In fact, this trend can be traced back to May 2012, which coincides with Joe Biden’s endorsement of same-sex marriage and his endearing shout-out to Will & Grace. A similar spark in the use of the phrase can be seen for March 2013, when the Supreme Court considered arguments on Prop 8.
The “right side of history” is an implicit reference to the multiple social reforms of the past century, such as women suffrage or the legalization of interracial marriage. In the American tradition of social change, reformers must challenge the mainstream, and when successful, their once controversial position becomes common sense for subsequent generations. The adoption of the “right side of history” by advocates of marriage equality or marijuana legalization highlights the inevitability of social change. As Ethan Nadelmann puts it, “the wind is at our back.”
Recent political victories demonstrate that the wind is indeed at our back on both marijuana legalization and marriage equality. Two states have now legalized cannabis outright, while 18 states and our nation’s capitol have legalized medical cannabis. Minnesota just became the 12th state to legalize marriage equality. I predict that we haven’t seen the last of our political victories and expect several more states to move forward on both marriage equality and cannabis law reform in the next several years.
There are many parallels to be drawn between the civil rights battles of the past and those fought today. Calling for an end to mass incarceration, specifically considering the drug war’s outrageous racial disparities, is sounding increasingly similar to advocating for the end of slavery. Today’s generational divide on issues of sex and gender (e.g. gays serving openly in the military) are analogous to those of the mid-20th century concerning the inclusion of women in the workforce. Another obvious example is the end marijuana prohibition, which echoes the re-legalization of alcohol in 1933.
As same-sex marriage and marijuana regulation become a reality, perhaps we should turn our attention to what these issues have in common. In other words, what is the common denominator of successful social movements?
All these movements work to dismantle a pervasive pattern of oppression and exclusion. From Jim Crow laws to “traditional marriage,” these unquestioned social systems enforce norms through criminalization (legal prohibition) and shame (social prohibition), resulting in injustice and inequality. Although they initially enjoy widespread support, these oppressive institutions can be toppled by shifts in public opinion, which start with a critical approach to social policy. Being on the “right side of history” is being open to going against the grain of conventional wisdom to promote social justice.
Today, most Americans stand on the right side of history on the issues of marriage equality and marijuana legalization, led by younger voters and opposed by a shrinking minority of Baby Boomers. Seeing as history tends to repeat itself, let’s avoid finding ourselves on the other side of the generational divide. Rather than wait for the next wave of social movements, we should be thinking about what social battles remain to be fought. What reforms will the next generation of reformers be working towards? Could we be blind to another system of stigma and exclusion?
Let’s start making our way to the right side of history now, so we don’t have to later. If progressive social policy is bound to prevail, as these success stories seem to suggest, we ought to promote an inclusive and egalitarian approach to social policy across the board. From drug users to people with disabilities; from immigrants to transgender people; from atheists to aspiring polygamists, there is plenty more room for social inclusion. In the words of California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, “Let’s stop reading the polls, let’s start changing the polls!”