Why I Now Hate the Phrase “Common Sense”

Common sense used to be a great concept. Unfortunately, it has been co-opted and abused by irrational people. Today’s culture is FULL of irrationality and irrational people, more than ever before.

Even when rational people use the phrase “common sense” in defense of what’s plainly true, it no longer resonates.

Big example: We constantly hear about “common sense” gun control. Everyone on both sides of the issue knows we already have that. Criminals are not allowed to own guns. Everyone gets a background check when buying a gun. When people say “common sense” gun control, they mean gun bans — for everyone.

Whatever that is, it’s not common sense. It’s profoundly questionable and controversial. Yet we’re supposed to treat it as self-evident.

Obliterating the Second Amendment is not “common sense”. It’s a travesty of justice. It takes us back to the pre-American Revolution era. Yet the phrase “common sense” is now equated with banning guns.

The gun issue is only one example, although it’s a current and important one.

Common sense is also used as justification for eroding or eradicating the First Amendment. “It’s just common sense. You can’t say hateful things. You can’t shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, and you can’t say inflammatory things about Muslims, transgenders or anyone else whose feelings might be hurt.”

Facebook and Twitter already enforce these edicts with the ruthlessness their leaders hope will one day be the law of the land. And they call it “reasonable” or “common sense”. Or the even more sickening and disingenuous: “Community Standards”.

So laws against speech or opinions — in America — are just common sense? Seriously?

What is common sense? It refers to the self-evident based upon the fairly easily provable. The way we use the phrase common sense today is not that way.

At its best, common sense is not a substitute for highly technical or specialized knowledge. It’s a way of coping with the limited knowledge most of us have in a highly specialized world. It’s a way of insisting we reason and think about both what we do know and do not know.

People who say “common sense”, in today’s context, often want to bypass the reasoning required to make their claim about something highly questionable, radical or untenable. “Saving the environment? It’s just common sense.” They use expressions like this to bypass all the scientific controversy over things like climate change or global warming.  And they ignore the authentically common sense point that we cannot predict the weather with accuracy four days from now, so how can we do so four centuries from now? “Climate change is common sense. That’s that. Get with the program, or off with your head.”

Increasingly, common sense is a tactic of intimidation. “If you don’t agree with me about this highly questionable and difficult-to-prove assertion, then you don’t have common sense.” It’s kind of like saying you’re brain-dead, or that you don’t have common decency. The purpose of such shaming is to arrest or obliterate dissension or discussion. It’s intellectual dishonesty or fraudulent elitism at its worst.

In 1994, Philip K. Howard wrote an excellent book called “The Death of Common Sense.” At that point, the title meant something, because common sense had not yet been turned around to mean the opposite of what it actually is. He warned us that it could, and — we now know — it absolutely and ultimately did.

The summary description of Howard’s book read (and still reads):

America is drowning: in law, legality, bureaucratic process. Abandoning our common sense and individual sense of responsibility, we live in terror of the law, in awe of procedure, at war with one another. Philip K. Howard has written the explosive manifesto for liberation – one of the most talked about sociopolitical treatises of our time. Citing dozens of examples of bureaucratic overkill – everything from the labeling of window cleaner as a toxic substance to the U.S. Department of Defense spending $2 billion on travel and $2.2 billion processing the paperwork for that travel – The Death of Common Sense shows how far we have wandered, how we got into this mess, and how we can – and must – get out.

It’s all true. It’s truer than ever before. The only difference in 2018 is that we have multiplied the number of regulations and irrational laws so far beyond what Philip Howard wrote about in 1994 that the nation is $20 trillion in debt and passing budgets with mind-numbing and totally unsustainable deficits. And this time, it’s Republicans who are doing it, not the Democrats (at least at the moment). When the Democrats get back control, the mind-numbing figures will explode even more.

The deeper issue is reason. Or objectivity. Common sense is the average person’s application of reason to issues of everyday life. A lot of people in America and elsewhere utilize common sense in daily life. If they didn’t, civilization as we know it would be done. But our elites, our intellectuals, our government officials, our media talking heads — they are all goners. They are so far outside the realm of reason and common sense — most of them, anyway — that our culture is kind of like a human individual trying to operate without a head. Even the Pope, once a figure worthy of some respect even if you disagreed with Catholic ideology, has quite self-evidently lost his mind.

Half of America blames it all on President Donald Trump, but Donald Trump — whether you love him or hate him — is the symptom, not the cause. The cause is what happened to America, and to Western, rational culture more broadly. The cause is the death of reason. If you love Trump, he’s there to correct some of the course and restore a little rationality. If you hate Trump, he’s the result of a society that had already gone mad.

The death of common sense was inevitable in a culture where reason has been slowly perishing for some time.

So it shouldn’t surprise me, I suppose, that I no longer like to use the phrase “common sense”, because the concept has been perverted beyond recognition. I’m not surprised, but I’m still very sad. I like common sense a lot, and I deeply love reason. Their slow, tortured demise is a very painful thing to watch.

I have no doubt: Reason can and will rise again. It always has — even after the Middle Ages — and it always will. I don’t know when reason will rise again, but it will.

My advice is to keep the light of rationality, objective truth and (sigh) what used to be called common sense burning for as long as you can, as millions of Americans and others still endeavor to do. That’s the greatest hope we have.


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