The Right Side of History

The Right Side of History

Once again, I’ve been slack on the blog posts. But, I’ve got a new speech below which I delivered at the final Toastmasters meeting for 2013.

Good evening,

Tonight I’d like to challenge us all to change the way we view the world by asking which side of history we will find ourselves on.

You see, as Nelson Mandela passed away and the world was inundated with condolences for the once terrorist and now freedom fighter, I felt troubled by the life he led and what it might say about the times we live in.

You see, one of the things which I have enjoyed learning about is how little our fears, joys and hopes have changed after 12,000 years of scientific and technological progress.

And this is what worries me so much, you see as a species we have changed very little, and are prone to making mistakes.

And although mistakes are forgivable, it is when we start to make them consistently without recognizing them we should begin to worry.

To make this point, I’d like to you all to think of a story of greed, speculation and economic devastation.

I am of course talking of 1593.

When tulips were introduced from Turkey to the Netherlands they became so popular that demand for them outstripped supply.

With prices for tulip bulbs continually rising, many people in the Netherlands sought to profit by buying low and selling high.

This frenzy continued until one bulb was worth more than an average lifetime income.

As people realized the tulips were overpriced, the market crashed, destroying the livelihoods of a nation.

Yet this is just one instance of the irrational exuberance of crowds, with there being many others including the South Sea Bubble, the Mississippi company scheme, black Tuesday and the global financial crisis.

So not only do we as a society make mistakes, but we make them consistently and in such a fashion that they appear retrospectively ridiculous.

But this is not a speech about market stability.

It’s about the fact that the you and I of yesterday, often did not recognize that we were on the wrong side of history.

In fact in South Africa, as recently as 1948, the then elected Nationalist Party declared:

“Our motto is to maintain white supremacy for all time to come…by force if necessary.”

For Nelson Mandela, the common complacency of people not unlike us, but caught in a different time, meant that until 1994 blacks in South Africa couldn’t vote.

Of course, you are all unlikely to be surprised by this, being students of history yourself.

But what to me is surprising, is for how long what we would now consider a blatant injustice, persisted.

You see, I believe humanity to be inherently good, suggesting that many of those complicit in these injustices either did not know, or didn’t care.

Which means that today it is entirely plausible that I am complicit in some modern moral equivalent of apartheid, without even being aware.

You see as a species we are not only able to change our physical environment, but our intellectual environment by changing the way we interpret our world.

So much so, that we can create a reality which justifies injustices.

The crusades were justified by Christianity, colonialism through ‘civilizing the uncivilized’ and the plight of the worlds poor by corruption.

But we all know that the true reasons and underlying machinations are more complex.

Yet unless we are careful these superficial justifications can become enough to allow us to live with these tragedies in full view.

And it is this fact I would like you to consider.

Because as much as we might think we are somehow different from our parents and theirs, I believe to consider ourselves as being morally superior to our ancestors is a dangerous hubris which risks complacency.

You see, it is not our intentions which have changed but our definitions of virtue.

But what we define to be good is also inherently fragile, and strongly defined by when we live.

So for us to be on the right side of history we must look beyond the now.

As was noted by the Economist in their eulogy of Nelson Mandela, what made him such a giant was not his influence or  his passion, but his willingness to listen and change his mind.

And it is this which I would like you to consider when you make your new years resolution for 2014.

Because as simple as this might sound, being able to objectively recognize and escape our prejudices, is what might stop us from making the same mistakes our ancestors made.

You see my friends, history may very well be written by the winners.

But the everyday is written by us.

Thank you.


I'm an economist, data geek and public speaker.

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