Common Sense: In the Eye of the Beholder

How is it that conspiracies propagated by Q’Anon get enough traction to build a cadre of thousands if not millions of followers, many of whom are eager to believe bizarre theories? How is it that violence-prone organizations such as the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, neo-Nazis and other white nationalist groups gain enough credibility to attract thousands of adherents?  How is it that so many Americans reject public policy changes that would,  in fact, benefit them?

It is, I think, primarily because many Americans are struggling and are desperate for answers. We are hungry for leaders who will promise a return to the life we knew before Covid.

In addition to the pandemic, the nation is in the midst of social, racial and demographic upheavals. Long-established leadership structures are crumbling, and such changes are difficult. For many in our nation, their struggle and frustration has morphed into anger and a sense that they are not being listened to.

Politics of Division

Meanwhile, our political leaders––those to whom we might look for solutions–– are divided into competing factions with competing “truths.” Each tells us that their way of solving the country’s problems is simply common-sense.

Think about how often elected leaders use the words “common sense” to convince us that their ideological opinion is an undeniable and undebatable fact.  Like the conspiracy theorists, they don’t want us to think about it, they don’t want us to have a skeptical mind that examines their proclamations against alternative theories. They want us to take what they say as universally accepted truth, and they want us to believe that those who think otherwise are clueless outsiders. To make this point, look at the recently passed Covid/stimulus/rescue bill.

“It is just common sense,” say the Republicans, “that adding $1.9 trillion of spending will send America into a fiscal spiral.” Pumping money into a welfare-like subsidy, they argue, will encourage people to stay home instead of working. According to Republicans, businesses received a sufficient boost in the previous stimulus bill; it is safe for schools to reopen immediately;  and sending money to state and local governments is a political stunt to subsidize irresponsible spending in ‘blue states.’  In their opinion, it is all part of a socialist plot to take over America.

On the other hand, Democrats maintain that spending $1.9 trillion will open up our economy and put us back on the path to a more normal and equitable life. This is, they say, needed to ensure that all Americans are able to receive Covid-19 vaccinations; that those who desperately need financial relief will receive it; that child poverty will be reduced; that small businesses will reemploy their workers; that schools will have the resources they need to reopen safely; and, that the depleted budgets of state and local governments will be restored. According to Democrats, this is just common sense

Whether it is the Republicans or the Democrats, Q’Anon or white nationalists, their theories and proposals are sold as common-sense truths.

What is Common Sense?

So, what is common sense? Professor Emeritus Marv Waterstone from The University of Arizona said in a recent lecture that anyone can proclaim their bias or political leanings as “common sense.” To do so does not require a sophisticated grasp of facts and doesn’t require any proof.

Waterstone warns us that “One person’s obvious fact is to another either questionable or absolutely wrong…. one side’s common sense is labeled propaganda by the other side.” And, propaganda is often contemptuous of the truth, an attempt to manipulate us to simply accept a position without doing the hard work of searching for the facts, of seeking the truth. This gives birth to theories propagated by dark-shadow organizations such as Q’Anon. And too often leads to the American people supporting proposals and legislation that, in the long run, is not in their interest.

Waterstone told his class (of which I was a member) “Unless we train ourselves to be open minded and skeptical––which is what critical thinking and learning are all about––we continue to accept the status quo even if we are disadvantaged by it. We are diminished in our capacity to imagine alternatives to the taken-for-granted status quo and accept its inevitability. Being open to new views is a very difficult and destabilizing proposition since we have a potential stake in thinking we know how the world operates…but, it is necessary to break down ‘taken-for-granted’ common senses that are not in our interest.”

The real problem is not just those who propagate the theories. It is also our willingness to forego the hard work of research and critical thinking before we embrace them. The real problem includes us.


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