Media Rants by Tony Palmeri
from the May, 2013 edition of the SCENE
Ask your real or digital friends to comment on what’s wrong with public argument these days, and they will usually say something like “a lack of civility.” People should be nicer to one another, but compared to historical norms we’re not near as bad as establishment media sources insist. In the 19th century abolitionists like Elijah Lovejoy and feminists like Angelina Grimke spoke under constant threat of mob violence, and were sometimes killed, just for having the audacity to advocate for equality and justice. That’s a kind of civility breakdown most of us thankfully will never experience.
Today what ails our democracy is not lack of civil argument, but lack of argument, period. When asked to defend positions on public issues, everyone from powerful public officials in Washington to the chatty neighbor down the block too often respond by assuring us their take is just “common sense.” Meditate on this for a moment: if the person you’re mingling with is speaking “common sense” yet you don’t agree with her, then that must make you a moron, right?
Wrong. What’s moronic is the refusal to think critically about an issue while hiding behind the shield of “common sense” to mask that intellectual laziness.
Hiding behind the common sense shield occurs on all sides of the political spectrum. Consider Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, who calls the attempt to expand health coverage to 30 million uninsured people (i.e. Obamacare) the "greatest assault on freedom in our lifetime.” When queried about what he would put in its place he says, “common sense market-based reforms that work.” RoJo the Freedom Defender is not moved by the fact that “common sense market-based reforms” of the financial sector led to the worst economic crash since the 1930s. But hey, common sense tells him that health care is different. On the budget, Johnson hopes that his new colleague Tammy Baldwin (double major in math and governmentin college) can understand the “ugly math” and work with him to find “common sense solutions.”
For his part, President Obama now labels virtually every proposal crawling out of the White House as “common sense reform.” On gun control, he angrily agrees with the New York Times that “gun advocates have stymied common sense efforts to reduce violence.” His immigration reform proposals include “common sense steps that the majority of Americans support.” On the budget, Obama calls a group of Republicans and Democrats who share his approach to fiscal matters a “caucus of common sense.” The Prez never wanted to be the Socialist tyrant imagined by his opponents, but he does crave the title of King of Common Sense.
When prominent or everyday people ask you to accept a “common sense” proposal, they are NOT telling you that proposal was arrived at through rigorous analysis of data, is supported by reliable studies, and can withstand serious scrutiny. “This is just common sense” instead typically means one of three things:
1: “In my experience this is true.” On health care, the market works just fine for Ron Johnson, as it does for most in the high income bracket. So therefore the market must work for everyone. When policy makers fail to walk in others’ shoes, they powerfully limit their ability to arrive at meaningful solutions to problems.
2: “I really, really want this to be true.” Even though President Obama’s gun control proposals are extremely mild compared to other democracies, and even though none of them would actually reduce the excessive number of guns in the country, he really, really wants to believe the proposals will prevent another massacre of innocents. Australia had 13 mass shootings from 1978-1996, and then decided to remove 700,000 guns from circulation while banning the sale, importation, and possession of semiautomatic rifles and instituting mandatory gun registration. That’s called a serious gun control plan.
There have been no mass shootings in Australia since 1996, but here in the States policy makers really, really want to believe that “common sense” reforms like an expanded background check will do the trick. Is an extended background check better than nothing? Sure, but if and when such legislation passes the best Congress the gun lobby can buy let’s not delude ourselves into thinking we did something courageous or likely to make a dent in the horrific homicide numbers.
3: “People I admire believe this is true.” All of us at times parrot back jive we hear on talk radio, cable television, print media, the Internet, or persuasive people in our immediate environment. Almost everything out of Senator Johnson’s mouth sounds like it came from the Wall St. Journal editorial page, while few politicians today seem able to escape from the mental grip of the talking points provided them by their favorite partisan “think” tank.
Privileging our personal experience, desiring things to be true even when evidence suggests otherwise, and uncritically adopting the views of others does not make us evil. These problems with “common sense” ways of approaching the world make us human.
The good news is we don’t have to be passive victims of common sense appeals. All we need to do is keep asking critical questions, be mature enough to change our minds when the evidence suggests we should, and resist all the pressures urging us to be intellectually lazy.