Common Sense Canards

One man demonstrated for his friend the fun that could be derived from playing with the latest gadgetry of his newest car. He invites his pal to hear the following dialogue with his automobile's computer which announces: "A door is ajar." "No, a door is a door," corrects the human. The monotone digital voice insists: "A door is ajar." Unbeknownst to the logic of the software, it is being made the butt of a joke. And the joke's humor is basing its own logic on the idea of generating contradiction where it really does not have to exist.

With a relentless tenacity to be proven right, therapists observe adversarial couples or parents and their children make light of the other's point of view. This is accomplished to primarily minimize and invalidate what appears to them to be an opposing argument when it may very well not be intended to come across that way.

It is only a matter of time when one of the participants in the debate says, "If you would just use common sense, we wouldn't be having this discussion." The use of the phrase "common sense" has become so common that we assume to know what the person saying it means. In many cases it invokes what would be referred to as consequential thinking: the ability to take into account possible consequences of one's actions. This type of thinking is not only mentioned because it is such a vital skill to have, but also a seemingly basic and fundamental way of living in the world. The latter usage is what baffles us when we encounter people who would actually avoid the implications of their decisions. Enough of these encounters, especially with those who matter to us, but frustrate with the crises and disasters with their chaotic misguidedness, leaves us heaving sighs and asking the question, "What goes on inside that head of yours?" This question is asked as if we really would like to receive a tour of the mind before us.

In therapy, clients discover that figuring out the "why" isn't always helpful. And just as surprisingly, admonishing someone to use common sense is not so straightforward as we would like it to be. The reason goes back to taking a good look at our understanding of common sense. Some explain it as something most normal and mature people do. Voltaire, the philosopher of the 18th Century French Enlightenment declared that "common sense is not so common."

In the 1951 film "Streetcar Named Desire," Stanley Kowalski expresses his ire to his wife Stella about her sister, Blanche, by saying that she accused him and their marital relationship of being "common." In fact, Stanley did actually overhear Blanche refer to him as sub-human. Saying this to her sister Stella about her husband was not a good example of common sense as this didn't exactly leave the quality of her time visiting with family unscathed.

Even though we may not intend our references to common sense to demean others as being less than us, our tone and unspoken thoughts betray a sense of condescension. We call upon common sense as a way of rallying like-minded people to let them know we are not alone in our ideas and direction we would prefer society to head. Interestingly, Thomas Paine's 1776 pamphlet "Common Sense" which called Americans to revolution was criticized by the loyalist Lt. Col. James Chalmers in his "Plain Truth." He accused Paine of quackery and not promoting an accurate common sense. We would like to think that we are appealing to some objective measure when we employ common sense, but in actuality are just saying it as a defense against those who do not agree with us.

Some will go so far as to elaborate on what they mean by common sense as doing what they do because it is second nature to them to the point that they do not even think about it. If this is to be accepted as it is, then this could be taken a couple of ways. One way could very well be associated with a person's values and how their actions flow in a consistent and seemingly effortless integrity. However, what is problematic here even on both sides of common sense's presence and absence is that the context is being notoriously overlooked. Mature and "upstanding" adults, star students, corporate leaders, and politicians have found themselves in scandalous and self-destructive situations due to the gaps in their thinking combined with growing levels of stress and the deceptive lure to undermine one's principles for selfish gain.

The second aspect regarding common sense as second nature reflex emerges from beneath what an individual might describe as without having to think about it. And the source where these inspirations and patterns issue from resides in the lower layers of the unconscious. This explains why we cannot always put into words the things we do, advocate for, and chastise others when we see it sorely lacking. What needs to be kept in mind, however, is that our unconscious is filled with what we have learned to admire and emulate. As one who has worked with troubled children as a school counselor and with inmates, it is important to realize that what one has been conditioned to mimic and follow, does not end up being sources of healthy character with positive outcomes. Our unconscious contains learnings of inestimable worth as well as jaundiced antipathies.

This is where the under-appreciated remuneration of relationships with others provide opportunities for more awareness and growth. It is when those we trust and give permission to challenge us see things and share with us those things we have been ignoring. Because common sense can many times be constructed out of our blind spots.

On the other end of this concept, the "sense" of common sense evinces a clarity and organization of logic - a falling into place, if you will. It can just as much suggest a break or as some philosophers illuminate as a "rupture" in logic. Our bumping into inconsistencies and contradictions will stir us into revolutionary action just as Thomas Paine invited so many over 200 years ago.

"Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired before age 18." -- Einstein