Monday, 30 October 2017
Common Sense – Neither Common Nor Sensible
I once told someone that Chinese people are more receptive to ideas like communism because the language contains no pronouns, and Chinese culture is therefore less amenable to ideas of individual liberty. This is, of course, an egregiously stupid idea, which I came up with in order to shut down a conversation I've been sick to death of having since about 1987. Firstly, there is more than one Chinese language, secondly, a lack of pronouns is neither here nor there - individual and group identities can be indicated at least as effectively through conjugation and so on, and thirdly, there is no such thing as 'Chinese culture' in the sense of a single, uniform set of ethnic practices across all people in the national construct now known as China. In spite of all these inherent, gaping invalidities, my interlocutor found this proposition to be immediately and profoundly convincing.
It basically comes down to the inherent vulnerability of 'common sense thinking' to specious argument. The whole essence of what we commonly (ha!) call common sense is one of reduction and closure. Nuance and complexity are deliberately stripped away with the ultimate goal of arriving at a simple, determinate conclusion. It's fundamentally geared towards disposal rather than contemplation – a bid to force the round peg of understanding into the square hole of definite and immutable fact. Where we most frequently see this pattern of thought is in polemic, usually of the conservative variety, but reasonably frequently across all bands of the socio-political spectrum.
I've never been able to understand our perennial love affair with common sense. As a framework for analysis, understanding, or even just simple cognition, it's appallingly unreliable. The very basis of the modus requires the thinker to isolate and subjectify - to operate in a solipsistic and essentially idiosyncratic framework, blithely selecting and rejecting elements of the subject at will in accordance with deliberately subjective, usually emotionally driven, criteria. There is an actual requirement for the creation of false equivalencies, reliance on biases (such as frequency), and deliberate or inadvertent disregard of known cognitive glitches, in order to create the oversimplified, selectively supported narrativisation and personalisation of reality which common sense thinking almost always produces.
This is especially apparent when we examine its operation in conspiracy theories. Pretty well every conspiracy theory, be it Flat Earth, Ancient Aliens, or 9/11 Truther, to name just a few, has as its central platform an appeal to common sense. How could they have made those pyramids without alien help? They're so big – it's just common sense. Buildings don't collapse like that, so the whole thing must have been an elaborate hoax – common sense. The world looks flat from where I'm standing – you guessed it: common sense again.
And this isn't limited to the lunatic fringe of cognitive dysfunction. Mainstream ideas backed by common sense have included all of the ugliest aspects of racial theory (people who look different must be innately different and therefore rankable by race), sexism (these uneducated women are uneducated, therefore educating them would be a waste), and xenophobia (the Iranian revolutionaries are crazy, and must therefore be indicative of the sanity of all Iranians). Common sense thinking is arguably responsible for the manifold survivals of prejudice, junk science, and the blatant lies and misrepresentations we widely accept as political truth.
Of course, common sense is very useful in some regards. For the kind of thinking required to decide not to run naked into the middle of moving traffic, common sense patterns of thought are admirably well suited. But when it comes to the navigation of complex, non-binary situations, it is rarely or never either appropriate, adequate, or even remotely valid, by simple virtue of its extreme reductionism. And this is important because we, as citizens, have powers and responsibilities to fulfil in a world which is unquestionably complex and non-binary.
All of which makes it very difficult to see a future any less confused and stupid than the present without a major re-examination of the insane assumption that animate bags of meat and water designed for social aggregation on the basis of emotional bonding are capable of valid rational thought by default.