As a writer of fiction and creator of characters, I’ve advocated for the use of common sense as saving grace, the obvious right way to function in the world, to react to situations, to make things better, to succeed. Boy, was I wrong.
Common sense, as defined by Dictionary.com, is “sound practical judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge, training, or the like; normal native intelligence.”
How can any judgment, if independent of knowledge and training, be sound or practical? How can it be called intelligence?
I’ve reexamined stories I’ve written, and it’s obvious that successful characters employ something more than what I once considered to be common sense, their actions, instead, based on knowledge, training, and a cultivation of ability and understanding. Those characters who employ actual common sense end up filling the bellies of zombies.
Let’s stroll down Common Sense Lane to one of its most popular houses, Science Denial. Global warming, despite what you’ve heard in media laughingly calling themselves news services, is not scientific fantasy, and it’s not a hoax. Scientists leave fantasy to science fiction writers and hoaxes to pundits. Politicians and corporate persons, however, have cynically refined misinformation to convince many purveyors of common sense that global warming does not exist. Even if it does exist, members of the U.S. Senate majority sneer, humans are completely guilt free and in no way cause changes in climate. These senators quickly point out that they’re not scientists. But why let that get in the way? What do scientists really know when it comes to science?
North Alabama’s congressional rep, Mo Brooks, a proud and vocal resident at Science Denial, posed this question in 2011: “[W]ould it be fair to say then that there has been a cooling of global temperatures at least over the last 13 years compared to 1998?” The answer is, of course, no, it would not be fair, nor would it be accurate or anywhere near factual. The last decade was the hottest on record since record keeping began, with 2014 the hottest year on record. But Mo’s sisters and brothers in denial in the Senate didn’t let such indisputable data get in the way of being independent of specialized knowledge. Instead, the majority tapped Ted Cruz, a vocal science and climate change denier, to head the Senate’s Subcommittee on Science and Space and James Inhofe, one of the most notorious climate change deniers in government, to chair the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee.
Leadership! But nothing more than a reflection of the electorate.
We Americans pride ourselves in our smarts, and we elect politicians who reflect our astounding acumen. Want more examples of our prodigious common sense? According to a 2006 McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum survey, more than half of us can name two or more Simpson cartoon family members, but only one in four can name more than one of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. Our constitutional prowess gets even better. According to a 2007 survey by The First Amendment Center, 55 percent of us (75 percent of Republicans and evangelicals, 50 percent of Democrats) believe the Founding Fathers wrote Christianity into the Constitution, establishing the U.S. as a Christian nation (pssst…they did not). Despite specific constitutional language ensuring freedom of worship to citizens of any religion—Christian, Muslim, Spaghetti Flying Monster, none at all—people are far less willing to extend to religious groups they consider extreme the freedom they enjoy in exercising their own beliefs.
In that same survey, nearly half of the respondents said teachers in private and public schools should be allowed to use the Christian bible as a factual text in history class. Further, some 60 percent of us Americans believe the biblical story of Noah’s Ark to be literal. Fifty percent believe a biblical rapture is in the near offing, with Jesus himself leading the faithful into heaven from an Earth that 50 percent of us claim to be only 6,000 to 10,000 years old, despite fossils, carbon dating—well, despite scientific fact. A good 10 percent believe that Barack Obama is Muslim, except during those moments when they’re condemning him for his membership in Trinity United Church of Christ of Chicago. Then they say he’s a radical.
More than a decade after we destroyed Iraq and ensured generations of hatred toward the U.S., 30 percent of Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks (he had nothing to do with the attacks). In a 2003 National Geographic survey, only one in seven respondents between ages 18 and 24 could identify Iraq on a map even though we invaded it because Saddam Hussein purportedly possessed weapons of mass destruction (he did not). Only 29 percent could identify the Pacific Ocean, that big ol’ blue pond off the California coast (Cali-what?). And up from 20 percent in a 1999 survey, a full 26 percent of Americans in a 2014 National Science Foundation survey said that the Sun revolves around the Earth. Yes, they truly did.
That’s our common sense in a nutshell. When it comes to the politicians we elect, we have nothing but “sound practical judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge, training, or the like” to blame. Politicians understand we Americans aren’t adept in government operation any more than we are in science, history, or geography. Take our inability to interpret the annual budget. A 2010 World Pacific Opinion survey found that most American voters want to cut foreign aid because they believe such aid comprises at least 27 percent of the budget. It’s less than one percent. Seventy-one percent of us, according to a 2010 CNN poll, also want to cut the size of government, and we want to do it by at least 50 percent, according to a 2009 Gallup poll—never mind that such drastic reductions would slash Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid, cuts that 70 percent of us oppose. Politicians thus pander to our fears, stoke our prejudices, and keep us ignorant, in line, and reliant upon common sense.
I once believed common sense to be a higher level of logic and reason common to all but accessed by few. But I’ve learned that common sense is nothing more than the collective stupidity of a culture or people, utilized as standard operating procedure and erroneously promoted as extraordinary and desirable. Denying responsibility, rejecting fact, perpetuating ignorance, operating out of hate and fear—that’s common sense and the foundation for stagnation, regression, and deterioration. It’s uncommon sense that takes a society forward. We advance only when we disengage “judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge, training, or the like,” and embrace a higher level of reasoning reliant upon fact and truth to benefit the common good.
Now that’s good common sense.