It disappeared when the concept of the humble common man was replaced by the concept of the liberated, empowered individual. The major events of history and the minor actions of our social revolutionaries have tried successfully to individualize and diversify all of us common folk. Time was when most humans lived off the land. They scratched out a living tilling the soil and worrying about the weather, the condition of the animals, the pests that would destroy the crops, and the income from the harvest. They reaped what we could and shared with their neighbors the fruits of their hard labor.
The latest census revealed that only 2% of the employed citizens of California, a state whose leading industry is agriculture, was involved with farming. I don’t know if that census figure includes all the part time illegal immigrants dedicated to the agri-business, but the numbers certainly reflect the change from a rural lifestyle to an urban one.
The loss of common sense may not be a serious problem. Common sense usually included the “what to do,” “how to do it,” “when to do it,” and the “where to do it” advice derived from the general consensus of a more unified population. Not everyone believed this advice, however, nor followed it. The conventional wisdom was available from our parents and elders, if we cared to listen to them. Most of these were simple folk who lacked a college education, yet they eventually learned the lessons that life on the farm taught everyone. It was a hard life full of physical labor that demanded many sacrifices. The paltry, annual net income after paying off creditors and suppliers was barely sufficient to raise a large family.
Those who escaped the uncertainty of the farm economy fled to the cities to look for jobs with a steady income. The rapidly growing cities offered opportunities in factories for the robust and eager to work and supposedly to take home a decent wage. That lasted for a while until the robber barons’ excessive greed exploited the workers and drove them to form labor unions.
The shared sensibilities of the common man began to change when that happened. The unions were necessary, of course – a natural response to the growing power of the abusive factory managers. Then the oppressed workers discovered the power of unified groups in a democracy. The unions’ monolithic resistance and solidarity eventually helped to raise the standard of living for the underprivileged working class particularly after World War II.
Yet, as industries grew more sophisticated and job descriptions more specific, groups of specially talented workers formed their own unions, dividing the hourly workers and reducing the force of unified action. In the airline industry for example, there are unions for the pilots, the mechanics, and the flight attendants. Each union can shut down the company, and each can strike for improvements to the benefits and wages of their members without caring much about the consequences to the rest of the labor force and to the viability of the company. Can you find any common sense being used here? Is there a common purpose anymore? A common concern for the welfare of everyone in a large organization?
Despite the social and political movement in this country to integrate minority groups into the cultural mainstream and eliminate the noxious “separate but equal” conditions, the results have been less than satisfactory to the minorities. Motivated by movements applauding diversity and a bold “stand out in the crowd” individuality, everyone is encouraged to be different and proud of it. Advertisers appeal to the younger generation to reject the old and buy the newest fad of consumer products.
Movies, sporting events, rock shows, and “reality” TV are examples of our interest in being different and shocking. Common behavior is not espoused, it’s boring. “I’ve got to do my thing, be myself, take my chances!” is the cry of our disenchanted youth. “We don’t want the lives our parents had. What good is their advice for our generation? Look at the disaster they have made of this world!”
Rebels at various levels of iconoclasm, some more violent than others, are standing up and trying to change what they believe is our misguided approach to evolving civilization and exploiting the environment. “Bravo!” I say. “But don’t throw the babies and seniors out with the bath water, please.” Although the intentions of the rebels may be noble, there is no common agreement as to how they should go about what they want to do.
Citizens are advised to: Go and surf the Internet for supposedly independent recommendations and proven solutions. Study the suggestions and justifications of the “experts” about the issues behind the various propositions placed on the ballot that our state governments can’t agree to resolve. Read the contentious Op-Ed articles in your newspaper.
Consensus about anything is impossible to achieve today. It is hampered by the intervention of lawyers and lobbyists who craft the legislation, by the constant political and bureaucratic infighting, and by the superficial opinions of outsiders unfamiliar with the intricacies of administering a multi-tiered governing organization whose primary motivation is to interpret the polls rather than serve the most informed voters.
How can the common sense that was developed years ago in rural America, which we seniors only vaguely remember and seldom use anymore, aid us today? It is practically useless except for the few, very general ideas we inherited addressing morality and ethics. Most of those ideas have to be relearned by each generation. The behavior of our recently disgraced Presidents and CEOs has proven that.
There is a specialized, evolving common sense about driving a car, using a computer, eating and exercising, and letting MasterCard take care of everything else. At the work place there are procedures for doing everything, so common sense isn’t needed except in an emergency. In those instances where we can’t seem to behave as others expect us to, we have governments, regulators, “people of authority,” and manuals ready to tell us what we should do. Or tell us what we did wrong!
Today common sense whispers to us to go with the flow, but don’t give up our individuality. Defend vigorously our right to be heard even it our opinions are defenseless. (Doctor Phil will straighten us out, or our favorite TV judge will settle the dispute we have with our neighbor.) There is a talking head on TV or radio who knows everything better than we do. Forget yesterday’s common sense. We have Martha Stewart to advise us about when to sell our stocks and how to decorate our houses. We have weather forecasters and gurus about any subject that troubles us. Their expertise is much better than our inherited common sense which gently cautions us to harbor doubts about the “professional advice” of unknown strangers.
“Common sense” is an obsolete term. We hardly see it in black and white anymore and rarely hear the phrase mentioned. “Put on your rubbers, it’s raining outside,” is not “in.” Kids have rubber soled Nike shoes fit for any surface, wet or dry. “Nothing to excess,” is not appropriate in a modern world that searches for superlative performance and honors record achievement. “Never tell a lie,” unless … (The exceptions are too numerous to list here.) Being able to get away with exaggerating, omitting the truth, or saying nothing is not considered “lying!”
The term “common sense” was formerly used to chide someone into following advice by putting down anyone who actively ignored its wisdom. Those folks weren’t good enough to be “common,” when the commoner was a respected citizen. The House of Representatives sounds so much more dignified than the House of Commons in England. But I may be unwisely biased.
Well, let’s not belabor the obvious. Times change. Obsolete common sense only benefited the common person. That person does not exist any longer. The media have erased him and her from our vocabulary. Today’s generic replacement is not respected by those who address the public with their manipulative advertisements and political rhetoric.
“Be different and follow us as we change things for the better!” is their repetitious message. Above all .” .. to thine own self be true,” as the renown playwright Shakespeare admonished us. “You deserve it,” says the smiling, pretty female face with whitened teeth and loose, blown dry hair in the lush cosmetic ad.
Today, the expanding overload of annoying sound bites and high pressure sales messages that we encounter each day have only a marginal impact on our judgment. Consequently, I don’t see a shared common sense becoming popular again in the near future. “Practice safe sex, don’t do drugs, don’t smoke, and don’t drink and drive” are common sense messages that our youth ignore today.
My “Silent Generation” ignored similar messages when we were young. Perhaps the practice of paying lip service, if not attention, to the generally accepted common sense of a community died before the hippy revolution. So, if common sense is already dead, let’s bury it and stop lamenting its passing!