Thursday, April 25, 2013

Why the Myth of Common Sense Persists

Common sense is a myth, but it's so pervasive that it has to come from somewhere—and it has to have some aspect of truth to it, for it to persist.

To see why, we first must consider where the "common sense" myth stems from. This involves an assumption. Well, a few assumptions.

  • Everyone knows the same things.
  • Everyone has the same concerns and goals.
  • An event has the selfsame significance to everyone who experiences it.
  • Everyone interprets events' significance the selfsame way.
  • Everyone's best response to an event is the selfsame reaction.
  • In short: Everyone is the same.

To illustrate, I have a lot of allergies. Let's say someone offers me something that I'm allergic to, wherein I'll be sick for days if I eat it. "Common sense" would be to refuse, right?.

  • What if I'm about to pass out from lack of food?
  • What if the person offering it isn't someone I have the authority to refuse?
  • What if I have reason to want to be sick?
  • What if it's Communion?

Suddenly, the "common sense" of not eating foods you're allergic to isn't so common.

But the average person doesn't know the contributing factors, so all they see is me eating that rice-full Communion bread in the morning, taking the red wine (and then wearing sunglasses indoors until the threat of migraine passes), then missing evening service due to illness.

That Communion example is reality, by the way. Technically, I could bring my own bread or cracker—and I did, last time—though I'm a bit uncomfortable doing that. I could also take one of the grape juice mini cups instead of the wine, but Communion is supposed to be wine*.

*I'm speaking of my own convictions, here, the result of my own study. I'm aware of the wine vs. grape juice debate, and that's not my point, today. My point is that my principles mean I do something that's commonly considered stupid or foolish and definitely not common sense.

In order for common sense to exist, everyone would have to be the same—know the same things, want the same things, come from the same starting point, have the same goals, etc.

But everyone's different.

So a universal, objective common sense—a sense that everyone holds in common—is a myth*.

*Okay, so you could argue that natural revelation is a common sense, but that's not strictly true, because the Christian vs. non-Christian knows it differently.

That myth means, when someone's doing something you find weird and irrational, getting snippity and calling the correct action "common sense" is foolish, because there is no universally applicable common sense. Something might be common sense to you, but that does not make it some objective "common sense".

And vice versa, of course. Others' "common sense" is likewise limited and flawed.

Does that make "common sense" useless? No. It just makes it limited.

Knowing where apostrophies go is common sense to me. It's common sense to any text editor worth their salt. It's common sense to many a writer.

Or perhaps we should say that the placement of apostrophes is a sense that is common to me, editors, and writers.

That's something to bear in mind in life and in writing or reading. If the actions of a person or a character make no sense to you, you're probably disconnecting on a "common sense" level.

If you're aware of that, then you might just be able to figure out what differs. (Or take advantage of those differences in producing character conflict when writing.)

Do you have any stories to share about common sense or the myth of it?


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