Common Sense

A while back someone hit me with the “common sense” hammer and it inspired me to write a post about that phrase. That icky, horrid, club of a phrase.

Ok, so I just called it a hammer, and then I called it a club. This is because it seems to be one of those things (kinda like “trust” which is a rant unto itself) that exists more so that people can wield it as a weapon than because it has much in the way of merit on it’s own terms. The problem is that common sense has no consensus. Instead, it just seems to be any given individual’s set of assumptions that they think everyone else should agree with.

In many of my formative years “common sense” was the reason given for not explaining something to me and then punishing me for not knowing it. See, I was supposed to know the thing, because the thing is *common sense* donchaknow. So that made it my fault for not knowing.

I also get it – I still get it – in disagreements. A person will declare their view “common sense” and use that as a way to denounce my view without actually needing to address anything I say.

So when you add in things like how I view the world in a rather substantially different way from most people, and I am not exactly good at inferring information that hasn’t been stated, this “common sense” business gets all kinds of messy. I’ve noticed that I’ve started to have an immediate defensive reaction any time someone says that phrase. I view it as inherently dangerous, and little more than a weapon. My assumptions are different from yours. Your assumptions are different from some other person’s. Maybe that’s ok and we’d all be better off examining our assumptions and communicating our intent rather than relying on other people sharing our own concept of common sense.

Sometimes I see people talking about how common sense is becoming increasingly rare. Actually, I think I’ve heard people say that for pretty much my whole life. People who are older than me – can you remember a time when that wasn’t said? It just seems to be one of those things, like “kids today,” that people always say. Regardless, I think that’s another example of differing assumptions. Maybe “common sense” isn’t being lost, maybe it’s just that the broad assumptions people carry around with them are changing. And maybe, just maybe, that’s not a bad thing.

Personally, I want to dump the phrase “common sense.” Do we really need it anymore? I don’t think so.


Filed under opinion

4 responses to “Common Sense

  1. I was in the wrong for using such phrases and just automatically believing that people knew what I was talking about. I never slowed down long enough to consider that, no not every one has even remotely the same assumptions. I was wrong and I am sorry. And I will not be assuming that everyone automatically know what I’m talking about ever again.

  2. I’m not entirely sure… the opposite of common sense, to me, seems the warnings on bags of peanuts that you are supposed to open the package before consuming. I can conceive of a mindset in which that wouldn’t be immediately obvious, and I can understand the usefulness of living in a world where everything is spelled out… but to what lengths are we willing to go? We use assumptions based on prior experience to make the world easier to navigate. They’re shortcuts in our thinking patterns, lessening the need to think about every single thing as if it were the first time we encountered it.

    Besides, I always feel vaguely insulted that peanut bag manufacturers presume my incompetence. Yes, I know it’s just to prevent lawsuits. But a lawsuit prosecuting a manufacturer for failing to warn someone that they should open the bag before trying to eat the peanuts… well, that feels to me like an absence of common sense. (It’s also why lawsuits like that are incredibly rare in the Netherlands – because judges do throw out cases based on “facts that any person could reasonably be aware of or pertaining to publicly available information”.)

    That doesn’t take away the fact that people often use the phrase “that’s simple common sense” to shut someone up or to make them feel stupid. I know I’ve been guilty of that as well. And that’s wrong.

    • Your peanut example is actually kind of interesting to me. One thing I see people doing sometimes is eating things out of small plastic bags without opening the package first. Seriously. I tried to find a video but I haven’t been having any luck. Anyway, some people do this thing with candies or other small, solid objects in bags where they put the bag between their teeth, with a bit of the food they want to eat in their mouth (still in the bag, of course), and then pull the bag out of their mouth, but with their teeth closed so the food doesn’t go too. So basically, they open the bag and get their first bit of food in a single motion. Someone who does that a lot probably won’t damage themselves with a bag of peanuts that refuses to open that way, but it might not always go so well either.

      But that’s the thing with assumptions again. Your set of assumptions different from other people’s assumptions, even with things like how to open a plastic bag with food in it.

      That said, I do rather see your point, but even their, citing “common sense” makes it really easy to just dismiss it without thinking it through further. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the phrase used for anything else.