Politics & Policy

Parkland and the Trouble with Appealing to ‘Common Sense’

Signs at a “March For Our Lives” rally in Sacramento, Calif., March 24, 2018. (Bob Strong/Reuters)
It doesn’t work as an argument and poisons the debate.

Since the shooting in Parkland, Fla., gun-control advocates have escalated the vitriol in an already polarized political climate. These activists publicly berated Marco Rubio at a good-faith debate and brandished $1.05 price-tag stickers: allegedly the value of a Florida student’s life in NRA contributions. Abetted by the media, they essentially claim that Republican legislators all know that we could eliminate school shootings, but choose to do nothing because the NRA is so deep in their pockets — or because they simply do not care enough about kids being shot in class.

After Parkland, Barack Obama also shared his thoughts, once again calling for “common-sense gun safety laws” on Twitter. While Obama’s favored policies certainly lack sense, it is the rhetoric of his pet phrase, now widely assimilated into the gun debate, that has committed the greatest harm, toxifying our discourse to its current post-Parkland state.

It is not, you see, that gun-control advocates expect lawmakers to take drastic measures such as repealing the Second Amendment and confiscating all firearms (although some would certainly like that). Rather, critics lambast legislators for failing to pass the type of legislation no one could reasonably object to — unless, that is, one had ulterior motives.

When a faction promotes its ideas as “common sense,” it necessarily generates a destructive corollary: Opponents to “common sense” no longer hold different values or just see things differently. It now follows that the opposition must lack fundamental reasoning skills and empathy. At this point, why even bother arguing?

Hence the postulate that the NRA buys out Republicans. If one is convinced that, say, universal background checks are nothing but “common sense,” a chaotic world resistant to background checks finally begins to make sense with a daft NRA-as-Svengali narrative.

Perhaps we could forgive the destruction if invoking “common sense” got us anywhere in a debate. However, it is not a particularly illuminating line of argument, applied to any issue. The definitive feature of common sense is that it is common to everyone. Policies truly dictated by common sense would need no defense — no one needs to be told they already believe something (unless they are talking to Socrates). And if the sense to enact a certain policy is not common, then proponents of that policy cannot claim common sense for support. Whatever rhetorical points invoking “common sense” may score, its tautology remains utterly useless in the genuine pursuit of truth.

To be fair, Obama and others have cited wide polling majorities when invoking common sense; the former president claimed in his recent tweet, for instance, that “most Americans want” these laws. It is true — polls from Quinnipiac, CBS News, and others put public support for some variation of widespread background checks somewhere around 90 percent. So perhaps we can grant that Obama’s views are, in fact, commonly held.

And yet the Parkland shooter passed background checks when he purchased his weapons. If the true common-sense response to Parkland is more background checks, then I must admit that I no longer have much interest in common sense at all.

The dialectical utility of invoking common sense is negligible, and certainly outweighed by the damage it deals to our political discourse.

We thus arrive at common sense’s central deficiency: In forming my own beliefs, while perhaps I ought to consider an expert’s opinion (but not too much), why exactly should it matter to me what any other ordinary schmuck thinks about, well, anything? I am reminded of a bit of George Carlin flippancy: “Think of how stupid the average person is, and then realize half of ’em are stupider than that.”

Finally, the appeal to common sense speaks to a deeper contradiction on the left. As with “common sense,” to dispute liberal orthodoxy is to reject “the facts” or “science.” But considering all the postmodernist vilification of our socially constructed reality, this progressive proclivity for the “objective” — worshipping fact-checking, science, and, of course, common sense — is curious. Ironically, common sense may be the greatest social construct of all.

None of this is to say that common sense is altogether mythical (although we ought to be skeptical of its virtue), nor that its rhetorical use lacks persuasive potency (it assuredly does not). However, the dialectical utility of invoking common sense is negligible, and certainly outweighed by the damage it deals to our political discourse.

Joseph Siegel is an undergraduate at Columbia University studying philosophy and economics.

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