Is common sense all that common?
David, the same hair stylist who inspired my last post on “creativity,” suggested “the death of common sense” as a blog topic. He argued that because of excessive governmental regulations and laws, people have lost their ability to think for themselves and to take personal responsibility. David is not alone in his thinking; in fact, someone — Phillip K. Howard — wrote a book making a similar point: The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America.
I have one example of a law that is annoying me, if not suffocating me. The HIPPA (Health Insurance, Portability and Accountability Act) law, originated out of citizen fears that confidential electronic medical information could be released with negative consequences for patients. The hospital where my mother received care days before she died and which sends me her bills, won’t tell me if her account with them is paid up. It would violate my mother’s privacy. Huh? It seems like common sense could better inform the hospital’s decision on how best to answer the question, “Do I owe you any more money?”
But back to the original topic. Is it true that common sense has been lost? Was there a time when we all had it? And what is it?
I’m going with a simple definition of “common sense,” which is “knowledge you’d expect everyone to have by a certain age.” But even this definition doesn’t pass the test of universality. Some of what goes for common sense will differ from country to country, culture to culture, even from heavily populated to rural areas within the same region. As a life-long city dweller, I’m sure I’d find myself without a shred of common sense to apply to any problems I’d run into living on a farm.
I can think of a few local examples that illustrate the absence of common sense. Calling 9-1-1, the national emergency telephone number, when a cable TV channel cuts out in the middle of your favorite show is one. It’s a serious enough problem that the county has developed a communication plan to help people understand that before they make the call, missing an episode of CSI: Miami, New York City, LA, Las Vegas, Toledo, Sacramento, Oklahoma City or Indianapolis doesn’t qualify as a genuine emergency.
Good examples of remarkably uncommon sense are the reports we hear several times a year of hikers who start out at dusk to climb a precipice, only to find themselves losing their way (and usually a few fingers) when they get lost in the snow after dark, or those who prepare for a long climb by wearing their best flip-flops and tank tops and carrying a small bag of salted peanuts. Then there are the snow boarders who can’t fathom what signs that say “If you enter this area you can count on dying in an avalanche,” really mean. I’m sure they do know what the sign is saying. Perhaps they don’t believe it applies to them.
It’s not just snowboarders who challenge directives. One Saturday we left home for a day ski trip with a friend, but before we had traveled far we saw signs saying, “Stevens Pass Closed.” Our friend, who was driving, decided to keep going. “I wonder what ‘pass closed’ means,” he said. We just laughed. It seemed clear to us. Finally, we arrived at a town where the highway across the pass began. He pulled into an espresso stand and asked the barista, “What does ‘pass closed’ mean?”
“It means you can’t get near the mountain, ” she said. “The pass is closed.”
He said “okay,” turned the car around, and drove us back home. Since that time, he has gone to law school and even passed the bar exam. We haven’t seen him for years, but I always wondered what caused him to question such a seemingly straightforward direction. I suspect it’s because he prefers Albert Einstein’s definition of common sense as “the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.”
Despite my examples, I don’t think common sense has been lost. There are more of us around now and a greater number who never had it.