The Curious Case of Common Sense

One of these days, I was having a quick chat with a friend. Towards the end, they said something which stayed in my head longer than usual. A remark that ties a lot of our day-to-day discussions and disagreements together. An oft-used expression to end an argument: “It’s common sense!”

If anything, my liberal arts degree has trained me to constantly ask questions. Most of the things that seem self-evident, when looked at with an interrogative lens, tend to lose their “obviousness”. Isn’t that the principle on which most of what we call common sense works? It’s “obvious”, not “rocket science”. To dive deeper into this, I ran a google search for times when famous people had used the expression. As anticipated, my screen was flooded with articles, tweets and numerous videos of press conferences as well as news channel debates.

In 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the opposition to please use common sense. In another one, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said that he wanted Mamata Banerjee to have some common sense. Ivanka Trump called her father Donald Trump, then President of the United States “a defender of common sense”. (Read this article for an analysis of why Trump uses this term a lot). In a more recent and outrageous remark, Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan hailed common sense to ‘blame’ sexual violence on women’s attire.

What is this enigmatic entity that so many people from politicians, celebrities to us ordinary citizens summon every now and then in our discourses?

‘The Myth of Common Sense’

Common sense is supposed to refer to our ability to make sound decisions in everyday matters. It leads us through our lives without any immediate knowledge of our own: we somehow just know that we do not have to sit naked in an office and that we cannot lie down on the road. But common sense also depends on what era we are in ­– while it was okay for a ruler to wear a crown at all times in the olden days, if our elected representatives were to do it today, that would be quite a spectacle. Concluding that common sense is necessary for operating in the practical world, where does the issue really arrive? Duncan Watts, a sociologist who has spoken about this on multiple platforms and published his research on computational social science, believes that common sense as a phenomenon falters when we try to apply it to more complex systems. Then it becomes nothing but a politicians’ easy recourse over having to justify their policies and our direct long jump to victory in an argument. Now, it has become a hackneyed catchphrase to supplement our discourses.

In his article titled ‘The Myth of Common Sense’, Watts says that common sense is “extremely good at making the world seem more orderly than it really is”. We like to believe that everything which seems obvious must have a formula using which we could have foreseen it. Hence we talk of many things that could have been better if our politicians had a bit of common sense. Or if we had some of it, we could have just voted for the right individuals. But the truth is that we never know of these things in advance. That is the very reason why nobody understands why a certain book sells or why a certain song goes viral. Some people would still like to argue that there is a way to predict these things, that is what marketers do after all. But there is no way of explaining the fair amount of money that publishers lose when a book doesn’t do well or a song that flops. Watts raises a question, if it is possible to sense these things, then why is it that several children’s publishers rejected the initial Harry Potter manuscript and why did no one pay much attention to the Mona Lisa for nearly 400 years?

The only possibility that seems likely is that these things are out of our control and as depressing as it sounds, this claim is confirmed by psychology. Jim Taylor writes for Psychology Today that “homo sapiens is a seemingly irrational species that appears to, more often than not, think and behave in nonsensical rather than commonsensical ways. The reason is that we fall victim to a veritable laundry list of cognitive biases”. So, having dismantled the idea of common sense that is perpetuated today, one can say that common sense is oftentimes nothing but our collective bias. It is a system which feeds the majority’s prejudices. Hence, Prime Minister Khan invokes it to further a patriarchal and misogynistic narrative. People turn to it in order to uphold the gender binary – “there must only be two genders as common sense dictates”.

Closer to home, in the Indian context, the privileged castes confide in their ‘common sense’ to criticise reservations – the majority believes that it is rotting the education system while the fact is that multiple experts who have studied the status of higher education in India point to numerous things that are wrong with it but none of them comes even a little close to affirmative action. Then if common sense only prevents us from critical thinking and feeds our strongly held biases rather than having us unlearn them – how effective is the idea of relying on it? Sophia Rosenfeld, author of Common Sense: A Political History, believes that common sense (accurate or not) is the assertion of the majoritarian will that serves to cut off debate. It caters to only the political and social elite.

It is difficult to answer how this English language term first entered the colonial Indian’s vocabulary as it is nearly impossible to map its usage in our own dialect but it would not be wrong to say that it appears every now and then in our conversations. Its corollary “not rocket science” is another hackneyed expression. While disciplines like Math, Biology and Physics (‘rocket sciences’) appear reasonably difficult to a student, others like Literature, Sociology and largely the social sciences appear to be “easy”. Hence, when confronted with questions about society, politics and governance, an average Engineering or MBA student passes them as answerable by common sense, they are not rocket science!

Duncan Watts asks that then how are we (allegedly) good at rocket science and not really at these “simple” subjects? He writes in his article for Freakonomics: “A few hundred years of political and economic theory – we still are obviously incapable of anticipating major financial or political crises”. Marketers still have a difficult time understanding what will work and what will not. Moreover, past trends don’t necessarily tell anything about the future ones – need we counter that in the middle of a pandemic. Patriarchy is still a challenge to dissect and dismantle, religious divide threatens the peace of our nation, people are still far from understanding affirmative action, we still haven’t learnt to decipher propaganda from useful information and all of these things are laid to rest in the graves of common sense. How come are the “simple” social sciences suddenly so difficult for us? How then is having ‘common sense’ enough to function as a responsible person in society?

Making sense of the nonsense

The opposite of common sense – nonsense – then naturally has a negative connotation. But it would surprise one to know of the term nonsense in Literature. It is a broad category of works that complicate the relationship between language and the world. At first, they appear to have no meaning at all but at a closer look they are seen to be overflowing with it. Nonsense appears in mainly nursery rhymes but also in the oral folk tradition across cultures. The gibberish that appears to make no sense is exploited as a literary device. It was made famous by Lewis Carroll in his works featuring the little Alice Liddell, at its best in the nonsense poem “Jabberwocky”.

It is a point worth noting that in Samuel Beckett’s 1953 play Waiting for Godot, Lucky who is slave to the master Pozzo is best known for his gibberish nonsensical speech in the play, the only time throughout the length of the play when he is prompted to “think” and therefore speak by his master. That long passage of scattered words, obtuse grammar and incoherent language which appears like a waste of space to a naïve reader is to date studied by critics and analysed to have a wealth of meaning. This episode is seen as also the subversion of the normative order, the dismantling of the majoritarian will, and the answering back to the “master”.

This whole ordeal of questioning and reflecting leaves our suspect ‘common sense’ in a flux. It might be useful in our day-to-day matters but to try and apply ‘common sense’ (our intuitive wisdom) to much more complex situations, even worse, to only rely on it might be a grave mistake as it has proven to be in the past. Both Taylor and Watts appear to have reached a common ground on this in their separate reflections that one must first at least acknowledge and consider that our common bias is often disguised as common sense to keep ourselves from falling victim to it. Watts recommends that we have a more curiosity-driven approach to social problems by seeking multiple expert opinions. We must then ponder, that what they are suggesting is for us as a people to think more critically, to overcome our collective biases and understand the world even better. Next time someone tells me “It’s common sense!”, I would probably know that I’m conversing with a wall.

Prachi Sharma is a writer based in Delhi. She is currently pursuing her postgraduate degree in Literature. How the language of ordinary discourse both has an impact on and is impacted by society is an area which interests her. She can be found on Instagram here.

Featured image credit: 愚木混株 Cdd20/Pixabay