Some 50 years ago, in 1964, 42 percent of Americans smoked cigarettes. Smoking in bars and offices was normal and cigarettes were given to soldiers as part of military rations. Half of American physicians smoked. Ads for cigarettes bombarded the American public. That year, the surgeon general released a report outlining the health risks of smoking. Two years later, only 40 percent of Americans said that they believed smoking was a major cause of cancer.
Today, we know that smoking is bad for our health. We’ve banned smoking in most indoor public spaces. We stopped allowing tobacco companies to advertise and forced them to put warning labels on cigarette boxes. By 2001, 71 percent of the country said they recognized smoking was a major cause of cancer, and by 2017, the rate of smokers dropped to 14 percent. The habit is now looked at as a relic of the past, something we’ve come to accept as unquestionably harmful.
When we think about what common habits, social norms, or laws that are widely considered unthinkable in today’s world, a variety of past atrocities come to mind. We could point to bloodletting, Jim Crow-era segregation, and drinking and driving as being on the “wrong side” of history.
But what modern practices will we one day think of as barbaric? It’s a framework invoked frequently in political or scientific beliefs: Actor Harrison Ford recently said leaders who deny climate change are on the “wrong side of history.” President Barack Obama said Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine was on the “wrong side of history.” Filmmaker Spike Lee said that President Donald Trump himself is on the “wrong side of history.”