I remember an conversation with one of my professors early in my graduate school tenure. I don't remember the context at all, just his statement "I don't believe in 'common sense'." Such a statement may not raise eyebrows among academics now (or perhaps even then), but, almost twenty-five years ago, I was a little taken aback. He went on to point out that there are all sorts of assumptions in the word "common", e.g., who is it makes up the "commons". For example, what may be "common sense" for Australian aboriginal males may be seen as absolute rubbish for Japanese females, and vice-versa. This doesn't deny that one group might not be able to understand the other, but their "common" experiences may not always overlap. Over time, his argument took hold in me, and now I'm pretty suspicious of the use of that phrase, or others like it.
So, yesterday, as I was biking home, I was listening to an interview with the two incoming leaders of Colorado's House of Representatives. Given that the control of the government in Colorado is now in the hands of a single party, there was all sorts of talk about the direction of legislation in the coming session. One item struck me: Colorado has several amendments to its constitution regarding the state's finances. And these all seem to work at cross-purposes, creating a Gordian Knot we're having difficulty untying.
What is clear to most, however, is that more money needs to come into Colorado's coffers; the question is the source. The Democratic (presumptive) Speaker of the House kept referring to the money that would come in as "revenues". The Republican Minority Leader chimed in, "Let's call these what they are: 'taxes'". And I began to muse on the power of those two words, and why each leader would use them. My suspicion is that they were both trying to appeal to a "common" sense that would help them advance their own particular agenda: "revenue" doesn't sound as scary as "taxes"!
Two different views of what we might hold as "common". Perspectives that result from all sorts of other motives, beliefs and experiences. And the language used will continue to heighten division. Maybe that's the way it has been, and ever will be. "Common Sense" can be used to motivate folks to action; Thomas Paine certainly thought so!
On the other hand, I'm constantly amazed at how the great religions, at their core, provideuncommon sense. In a polytheistic world, Islam's insistence on one God was absolutely uncommon. In a world that worshipped power, Christianity's suffering savior was pretty uncommon. To a world that wants to avoid suffering, the Buddha's assertion that recognizing that all life is suffering to be the first step to peace is highly uncommon. Yet these religions have survived, and thrived, in spite of their uncommon assertions, probably because we all, at some point, recognize their truth. And we find some hope in their uncommon nature when surrounded by a very common world.