By now, you’ve all heard of “post-truth.” I’ve written about that here already. The term is very 2017 and early-mid 2018, i.e., it’s yesterday’s news. I’m going to give you something new: post-common sense. What’s that, you ask? I’m going to tell you.
Consider this: go to www.usdebtclock.org and have a look at those numbers. This website, and others like it, measure in real time the size of the American national debt. There are similar sites for other countries. Here’s one for Canada: www.debtclock.ca. You know about this problem. Everyone does. Politicians from all parties agree the problem has become unsustainable and unmanageable. Their solution: they don’t have one. Why not? This problem didn’t appear overnight. It cuts across party lines and should be solvable, but it goes unsolved year after year, decade after decade, government after government.
Now consider this: are you happy with your public education system? How many kids are in your child’s class? How much learning is going on? You see the problems, so do the teachers, so do the students. I see them too. My students are relatively successful products of that system and I’m aware of what they’ve learned and what they haven’t. It’s not a happy situation, and it goes on decade after decade. Governments promise to “raise standards” and they continue to lower them. This problem also cuts across political party lines, and there’s no solution coming.
A third example: have you ever tried to have an addition put onto your house, build a garage, or tried to do anything at all that brings you into contact with a building code and inspectors? If so, did you enjoy the experience? Did you ever find yourself shaking your head?
Those are just a few random examples of the disappearance not of truth but of common sense from the world of government. You can think of a thousand others. Now consider a few examples from ordinary life. How many hours in a week do you spend in rush hour traffic? Do you enjoy that? Does it make sense that people do this, have become resigned to it? Is there nothing that can be done about this?
Another example: do you know anyone over the age of twelve who was blocked by someone on email or Facebook, and experienced this as emotionally impactful? Has this ever happened to you? If it has, and if you felt wounded by this, does that emotional reaction make sense? This is the equivalent of nine-year-olds passing nasty notes in class, and grown adults now do it. Does that make sense to you?
Another one: in your workplace there’s a jerk, maybe quite a number of them, and they’re not going anywhere. Tomorrow they’re likely to be promoted while everyone knows they shouldn’t be, and maybe they should be fired. Most people in your workplace are doing their job and are probably under-rewarded for it, while the incompetents get in the way, make other people’s lives difficult, and so on. Everyone knows that they should be shown the door, but they’re not. Why not?
Another one: you probably heard a lot when you were growing up about the importance of saving money, and that you shouldn’t buy something before you can afford it. Your parents and grandparents belonged to generations of savers. How many people today are savers? It makes very good sense. Everyone knows this too, and we largely don’t do it.
You can think of examples like this all day long. In the song “Business as Usual” by the Eagles, singer-songwriter Don Henley writes, “common sense is goin’ out of style.” I disagree with him. It’s not going; it’s gone. What these examples are examples of is post-common sense. I want to try to describe it in general terms. What I’m speaking of is a kind of forgetting, and it’s a collective phenomenon. Common sense is, or was, not just a body of information but a kind of sense or sensibility, a sense of what the members of a particular society share, and a sense of what’s possible for us given what we share. It’s a form of knowledge that any adult ought to have, even while it’s a very elusive phenomenon. It’s a sense of what’s good and bad, what makes sense and what doesn’t, and of some bigger picture that we can collectively look up to when we’re trying to solve problems that concern us all.
My suggestion is going to be that we no longer have any big-picture understanding of who we are, how we should be living, what things mean, and what kind of society we want to build. A society that’s without a big picture of this kind, however vague it might be, isn’t unlike an individual who’s without one. What’s the big picture of your life? How about your society? If there isn’t one, a person or a society is lost, lacking the very thing we need for solving the kind of problems I’ve mentioned. Solving a problem involves looking up from some particular situation to some kind of larger perspective. That larger perspective might be a national story which narrates the nation’s founding and emergence, some shared aspirations or self-understanding that binds us together into some semblance of community. Have we become utter strangers to each other, living as we do in cities that are overcrowded and increasingly uncivil? What do you have in common with your neighbors or coworkers? Maybe nothing.
We’re in a condition, it seems to me, where we can readily agree upon problems but not solutions. We shake our heads at these things and countless others like them, and we don’t for the life of us know what to do about them. The reason is that we longer have a shared sensibility in light of which we can work together on solutions, a sense of what is common, of who we are, what matters to us, and what makes sense to us. This has been lost. When such a thing exists, it emerges spontaneously, in a bottom-up way, from the soil of a culture. It’s not the result of any government plan.
I don’t want to be mistaken for a cultural conservative. The common sensibility that I’m talking about isn’t simply conserved from the past but is a living and contemporary phenomenon, when it exists at all. In a pluralistic society such as the one we’re living in, it’s probably harder to find than in more homogeneous societies, but hard doesn’t mean impossible. If one doesn’t presently exist, one will have to be invented. Who’s currently working on that? The closest we have today to a larger perspective or worldview that cuts across the many divisions in our society is technology, but technology is a poor substitute for the kind of larger picture that I have in mind. Religion used to provide this, and for some it continues to do so, but on a societal scale this won’t do in a modern pluralistic society. Instead we have rules, regimes of rules. Yesterday we had ten commandments; today we have 10,000: laws, regulations, procedures, terms of reference, best practices, techniques, and armies of experts, facilitators, consultants, and micro-managers. What we have, in short, is order, much of which bears on the management of human emotions. The feelings of the individual are what matter now, regardless of what those feelings are, and regardless of the consequences of indulging them. We want to feel good, and expect the world to make it so. If our feelings incline us toward narcissism and angry self-seeking, then so be it.
Common sense was a moderating force. It usually prevented the lapse into extremes and promoted social peace, even while no doubt it also included its share of prejudice, superstition, and nonsense. The upside was that it provided some common basis, however imperfect, from which the members of a society could form a common cause and solve the problems that any society faces.