William A Gardner
Culture and Societies
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Social Common Sense
Has our society lost its social common sense? Are we so separated from the realities of those natural, cultural and economic factors which are the foundation of our society, that we should see these same factors as not just tainted but evil? Like the children of the wealthy scion who find religion, or through some form of guilt, wish to not just eschew the lifestyle of their parents but also to raze their house to the ground, the dominant political and social movement in the western democratic nations has apparently become one of accepting almost any culture as better than the one in which they live, followed by a figurative burning at the stake of the old order. We are building a house from romantic bricks and silly putty mortar to imprison Cassandra while common sense goes begging at the curb.
Societies succeed when there is social cohesion and trust among the majority of members. Such a society can tolerate peripheral or home-grown groups that promote rapid change, either peaceful or violent, to correct what they see as economic inequities or moral faults within the social structure. This engenders a slow evolutionary process, slow because the balance of power, and thus government policy and action, is held by the productive majority who understand the intimate connection between productivity, prosperity, and a cohesive society. But what happens when government policy and action becomes responsive instead to minority groups who believe that productivity has little to do with how society is structured? Or, the primary media convinces people that a certain opinion driven by a minority group is correct and unquestionable. You end up with the tail wagging the proverbial dog, and in this case the tail is a generation that has limited common sense simply because they have been shielded during their life from the realities of economics and power. Our society has adopted a socialist and liberal bias that separates action from consequences, and thus it is understandable why so many people are either unaware or unwilling to accept the potential consequences of support for leaders who promise what common sense screams is unlikely if not impossible. In the end, politics has become an exercise in emotion, not logic, and certainly not common sense.
Common sense in a person starts from logic, logic which is then tempered with experience and a knowledge of people and history, supplemented with adversity, education, a good understanding of how the world works, patience, and keen observation. It could be described as practical wisdom applied to common life. It is a type of integrative thinking that is often more associated with the subconscious than the conscious mind. It is a facility that likely developed over millennia and whose purpose was clearly to prevent us from doing stupid things and thus terminating our genetic line. Today we even celebrate this ability in something called the Darwin Awards. Neither wealth nor education will guarantee to confer it upon a person. Common sense is often linked with intelligence yet many very smart people appear to lack it entirely. It is the combined common sense of citizens that creates a social common sense. This is the opposite of herd behaviour which is the certainty of an individual that some 'fact' or 'attitude' is correct simply because the majority believes it to be true.
Unlike older tribal societies where the individual was almost entirely subservient to the tribal culture and leadership, western democratic culture recognized the individual as separate from the group and allowed (even celebrated at times) the right of an individual to adopt and express opinions that were contrary to the norm. It was this freeing of the individual from the tribal intellectual and cultural shackles that was instrumental in the advances of western democratic nations in philosophy, technology, art, music and liberty. Yet today the common sense need for free expression is under more attack than it has been for many years. The lure of instant communication and financial convenience is creating a culture where privacy is a rare commodity and a long conversation is more than one sentence on Twitter or Facebook. The smartphone generation is retreating into a more tribal culture where rational thought is being replaced by the quick response, and any comment of more than a few simple sentences is unlikely to be read. It is about group belonging rather than thoughtful interaction. In the social media world any deviation from the accepted group norm is subject to derision, insults and bullying. This is tribal behaviour and it is the antithesis of common sense. Anyone who has observed an instance of mass hysteria will understand the lack of rational thought that can infect a group. The antidote is learning how to listen. The conversations around the supper table where children would learn how to listen, think and converse are a dying phenomenon. The opportunities to learn common sense are fewer and fewer.
There is a great conflict which has been brewing between the intellectual and financial elites on one side who believe they must act to 'save the world' from itself, and the common person on the other side who wants the freedom to live his or her life with a minimum of interference. These are antagonistic ideologies because for the elites to accomplish their goal they must limit the freedom of the individual. It is a destination whose shape is becoming clearer by the day. It is about power and the difficulty of reclaiming the power of independence and freedom once it is lost. The way for our western democratic culture to avoid this destination is for young people to seek out others and talk to them about local and world events. Learn to listen. Be concerned if there is no disagreement. Practice logic. Question your own beliefs. Foster a skeptical attitude. This is how you develop common sense. When one fully understands the phrase "there is no free lunch" then the journey has begun.
Let's avoid having a future historian say, "by the time they put down their phones and looked up it was too late."