Concerning Common Sense

Mark Rothko, White and Greens in Blue

Mark Rothko, White and Greens in Blue

Concerning Common Sense

Peter King in pursuit of the real

I would like to propose what might be called the common sense view of politics. This is, in truth, an anti-politics. It is an excuse for not acting and instead wishing a plague on all their houses. It is this common sense view that keeps us alienated from politicians while allowing them to get away with things that we do not support.

This common sense view can be characterised by a number of statements, which, while not all mutually compatible, provide us with a picture of the form it takes. All these statements, if they were ever to be articulated, would be personalised. They would not be stated in the abstract, but as things which ‘I’ or ‘we’ feel, and I shall state them accordingly without necessarily suggesting any affinity with the views in question.

The first statement is that we are not listened to by those in authority. Instead we are ignored by the decision makers who simply follow their own interests. This is because we see that politicians and others who take decisions – who we will insist in referring to as ‘them’ – are different from us. They have distinctly different motives and interests, which lead them to take up positions that we find cannot fathom. They give sovereignty away to Europe and bail out foreigners while cutting back at home. We find ‘their’ interests to be perverse and strange and divorced from the world in which we live.

But, second, we have no real expectation that politicians will be like us. We expect them to be different and to act in their perverse ways. Thus we are not particularly surprised by their actions. We may be disappointed but that merely confirms our prejudices. We do not expect politicians to be any different from how they are, or to do anything different from what they currently do.

Third, we believe that while things could be doubtless better, they could also be a lot worse: life may not be good but it is also ‘not bad’. We tend to describe the world without excessive enthusiasm: we see things as ‘fair to middling’. We express ourselves negatively rather than with a positive statement. We acknowledge that things are OK, all right, or perhaps we will admit that they could be better, we do not wish to claim that things are perfect or anywhere near to that state. We do not have any particular problem as such, and we are not inclined to overstate. We do not want to embarrass ourselves by any show of enthusiasm. If we said that things were bad, or, Heaven forbid, excessively good, we might be drawn to explain ourselves, to make some definitive statement on our condition.

But, fourthly, we also do not believe that we have to explain ourselves any further. We do not feel that we need to justify our actions and beliefs to others. There is little wrong with how we live, and if any one complains about us the problem is therefore with them not us. We feel that we are best able to decide how we should live and do not need or welcome the advice of others. We consider it to be perfectly proper, natural even, to ignore those things that we do not like or feel to be unimportant, and we do not see it as acceptable for anyone to tell us otherwise.

But having said all this, we expect other people to be just like us and we are not that often disappointed. We assume a commonality of interests and beliefs. We expect our view of the world to be mirrored by those around us and so make ready assumptions in our conversations about what we understand to be normal and acceptable.

Finally, even though things are ‘not bad’ and we see no need to question our positions, if asked we would probably state that things are more likely to get worse rather than better. We may not be able to cite any reasons for this other than our singular experience. We have become somewhat cynical and jaundiced about the motivations and competence of politicians and it matters little which particular group of politicians are currently taking the decisions.

There is no particular consistency between these statements, but this is not something to be surprised at. We do not live according to a set of worked out principles or a manifesto of intent. We act and react because of circumstance and situation, and these include convention and custom. We face particular situations and all we have to hand is our experience and a common sense understanding of the world. We do not have to articulate it because it is never put under concerted attack. Instead we merely react as and when the circumstances dictate. This is most certainly not an intellectual position, but one where we act out of habit and on the basis of a belief that it is a right and proper way in which to behave.

But while there is no necessary consistency in these statements, we do not think of ourselves as being inconsistent and nor would we appreciate being referred to as such. We do not think of ourselves as crude calculating machines, but as making normal responses like anyone else would. We do not see ourselves as flawed beings, but rather we assume ourselves to be just acting, reacting and responding with no great intent or purpose.

We do not seek to question the motives of others any more that we examine our own. We might see ourselves as acting normally but, for the most part, we do not see the actions of others with anything other than a benign indifference. However, it is precisely this indifference that allows others – and therefore ourselves, as it is, of course, mutual – to actively seek to fulfil their own ends relatively free from interference. We rely on the indifference of others and so our diffidence has a purpose. It ensures people keep their distance from others, and so no one imposes themselves upon us, and nor do we impose on them.

An essential part of this common sense view is an acceptance of the world as it is. It means that we have come to terms with how things are rather than assuming that they could be something else. We accept our place and do not hanker to be elsewhere or someone else. This is not because our lives are perfect, or that we are always happy and content with our lot, but rather it is simply because we appreciate that we cannot be anywhere else but where we currently are. We may have regrets and still harbour hopes for the future, but these are grounded in our current reality. We accept that there are limits and understand that these limits cannot easily be transcended. Being aware of our limits and the groundedness of our current position means that we will tend to favour the present over the future. We will accept that what we have now is not contingent or based on some false understanding. We are not being oppressed by unseen hegemonic forces that seek to bend us to their will, and we are not hankering after some utopian future where we believe that the world can be fundamentally different from how it is now. We know that this is all there is, and find it absurd to be told otherwise.

Common sense is the opposite of an engaged interest and activism in politics. It does not favour direct involvement and appears instead to maintain a happy apathy and ignorance about politics. This does not mean that politics is completely disregarded, but rather that it does not feature in any active way. We know that politicians are out there, and that they are doing things. But we do not accept that they are the same as us and that our interests coalesce. Politicians are people who do things for themselves and on the basis of their interests. We accept this and only become agitated when we see that their actions become too outrageous for us to ignore any longer. But there is seemingly no guarantee that this point we ever be reached.

PETER KING is Reader in Social Thought at De Montfort University. His most recent books are Keeping Things Close: An Essay on the Conservative Disposition and Here and Now: Some Thoughts on the World and How We Find it, both published by Arktos in 2015

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