Speaking to a crowd of like-minded conservatives in New York recently, Tony Abbott made an appeal to them: ‘In today’s world, we need less ideology and more common sense’.
The refrain came amidst a plea to protect the institution of marriage; that’s to say, not allow people of the same sex to marry. Why his position is the common sense one isn’t exactly clear: is it because it’s in keeping with Church law? Or, simply, because it’s in keeping with ‘tradition’?
Indeed, his very appeal to common sense unmasks the emptiness of such pleas. Yet, it’s increasingly become a mainstay of conservative politicians and pundits alike.
This wasn’t always the case, though. The best-known and most historically significant appeal to common sense came from a revolutionary who wanted to overthrow the British monarchy. In 1776, Thomas Paine published his incendiary pamphlet, Common Sense, that played no small part in fomenting attitudes that soon led to the American Revolution.
For Paine, rebellion was a matter of ‘simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense.’
But that wasn’t what everyone believed. James Chalmers, a Loyalist officer responded to Paine in Plain Truth, accusing him of ‘quackery’ – a term still at odds with notions of common sense.
It’s not that the monopoly on common sense in political discourse has migrated from Left to Right; rather, this eighteenth century dispute illustrates just how devoid of any meaning appeals to common sense have always been. It was, and remains, a contested notion that is no more than a populist catch-cry for those who are happy to do away with evidence-based reasoning.
Nonetheless, these days the appeal to common sense has become the domain of the Right. Senator Cory Bernadi’s website slogan is ‘common sense lives here’ (you can even sign up to the mailing list and ‘Join the Campaign for Common Sense today!’). Australian columnist Chris Kenny regularly signs off his tweets with the hashtag #youknowitmakessense. And Andrew Bolt, perhaps Australia’s leading common sense advocate, enlists it as an argument for almost every cause he champions: from climate denialism, to opposition to Indigenous constitutional recognition, to free speech.
Climate change is an interesting case in point. Denialists regularly deride those who believe in man-made climate change for keeping common sense out of the debate. Their argument is familiar to all: weather patterns are – and forever have been – changing. Thus, to argue we now live in exceptional times – that somehow the present moment is different from the previous centuries – is an affront to common sense.
On the face of it, this seems sound – that weather patterns do change is undeniable.
However, climate change is an incredibly complicated phenomenon; there are only relatively few people in the world qualified to assess whether humans have had a hand in altering the current trends, or if the changes are part of a natural cycle. And, of those experts, 97 percent believe man has, to some extent, played a role in altering the climate for the worse.
Now, since I am one of those ill qualified to properly evaluate the scientific evidence, I choose to be guided by those who are. To me, this seems the common sense approach.
Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, has found that people who identify as either progressive or conservative differ on what aspects of common sense they most admire.
He has found that progressives (or liberals in the more common American parlance) tend to value fairness and care, while conservatives lean towards loyalty, respect and purity.
In other words, the notion of common sense is closely related to one’s values and broader political ideology – that’s to say, not common at all.
But common sense advocates may well dismiss such findings as elitist piffle, for there seems to be a confluence of trends: advocacy for common sense seems to go hand-in-hand with a broader anti-intellectualism.
Take, for example, this 2012 article by Andrew Bolt titled ‘Common sense kept out of debate’, in which he effectively backs a farmer’s views on climate change over Tim Flannery’s. The farmer’s experiences hadn’t married up with Flannery’s and other experts’ predictions, thus it must all be bunkum – the common man, with the common sense approach should have his opinions vindicated.
Of course, such reasoning is grossly (some would say dangerously) simplistic. Observational experiences simply don’t stack up against quantifiable, evidence-based research and detailed data analysis.
Nevertheless, it provides an interesting example of why there seems to be an intersection between those who formulate their views based on common sense and a pervading anti-intellectualism.
Many policy debates – on climate science, macroeconomic management or fiscal policy, for example – involve complex problems that require a high degree of knowledge to be properly assessed. Now, of course experts can disagree, but the level of knowledge to even follow these arguments can be considerable – it’s often difficult to simply get a grasp of their jargon. It stands to reason that in such cases common sense is insufficient.
Admittedly, these discussions can seem elitist and are, thus, often presented by common sense advocates as deliberately obfuscatory. Such smears act to not only denigrate intellectuals and experts, but to also validate the opinions of those with a lesser level of knowledge and offer reassurance that their opinions are equally as valid.
It’s why common sense politicians claim to be the only true representatives of the common man; it’s why common sense pundits claim to be the only true voice of ‘average’ Australians.
So, be warned, those who go around dispensing commonsensical reasoning to win people over should probably give one reason for pause and, perhaps, their arguments deserve to be scrutinised a little closer than is the norm.
(This was originally published in New Matilda under the heading ‘The Problem With Common Sense: One Person’s No Brainer Is Andrew Bolt’s Latest Conspiracy’ on 10th February, 2016.)