Is it common sense that there is no such thing as common sense?

Boris Johnson’s belief in trusting the ‘Great British Common Sense’ may seem like…well, common sense, yet this is an ambiguous and empty myth often negotiated through our own interpretations and manipulated by our own forms of justification and value judgements.

Common sense might be loosely related to social norms and values that operate relative to a society or country, often these are codified in law but often they are not. Obvious examples could be to not kill someone else. This is basic common sense as a very general matter however as we all know this is open to interpretation. For instance, to kill someone in self-defence may be excusable in certain circumstances but to take this further, society occasionally legitimises killing and indeed trains people to do so, for instance with the armed forces. Now obviously this is all a matter of context, but this is why common sense is so easily manipulated not just by society but by us as individuals. It is constantly open to caveats and loopholes. This is clearly not a very good basis upon which to base policy.


Credit: Avery Evans

However common sense is also a political and ideological viewpoint that we construct or adopt from others. For instance, some people may advocate locking up criminals and punishing them severely for the good of protecting society – common sense. Yet on the other hand a very different common sense could be that locking up offenders is actually counterproductive and does not protect society as it is more than likely that when finally released, offenders will commit more criminal acts. Rather it is far more effective to rehabilitate and re-educate offenders within a context of responsibility and self-worth – common sense.

Common sense also operates in terms of a myth of national identity. For Johnson to refer to a ‘Great British Common Sense’ he is stating that there is firstly an agreed upon common sense that applies to all 66 million in the UK and secondly that it is distinct from other nations concepts of common sense. This is clearly very problematic and is indeed a fantasy. Moreover, Johnson is probably aware that such a thing is a fantasy, yet ‘common sense’ is a useful tool, operating both as instructions to ‘do the right thing’ (entirely subjective reasoning) and as norms and codes within society (constructed values enforced and normalised through dominant discourses of how things or instances are politically positioned). 

Indeed, the arbiter of such a pronouncement of Johnson’s call to Great British values, the Daily Telegraph has very specific values attached to its concepts of ‘common sense’. Dominant narratives are essentially political ideologies, but they’re also vague common norms and values that can be hijacked and manipulated for political ends. When Johnson is referring to a distinct British common sense it can be interpreted that he is relaying and reinforcing his Brexit narrative of a superior, self-reliant and distinct nation. On the other hand this could easily be laughed off as conjecture, but only maybe by those who actually believe and buy into the message and image that Johnson is conveying. The point being is that the message of a ‘Great British Common Sense’ is largely accepted and dominant within wider society, so to question this is a political and ideological act in itself. Indeed, if you are not deferential to prevailing values then you have no common sense!

I guess the whole point here is that we will manipulate and interpret common sense to suit our own needs, beliefs or values. Doing the conga with a whole group of people to celebrate VE Day obviously is not following social distancing (or common sense in regards to a prevalent contagious disease) but for those involved, this clearly merited a pass or a bending of common sense, or rather common sense for them is clearly tied into a value system of priorities. We will use this loose term ‘common sense’ to justify our actions and beliefs, but we’ll also term these actions or beliefs as common sense. The problem though, is whose common sense and is it applicable in all circumstances.

Dr Stuart Cartland is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Sussex and wrote his doctoral thesis on Discourses of Englishness in the Contemporary Era.


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