Interesting words, part 4: Common sense

A continuing series. This quote comes from a personal interview with Daniel Levin, associate professor of political science at the University of Utah:

Common sense is always the easiest way to avoid actually arguing the matter at hand. "It's just a matter of common sense. It's just so obvious." Which works with people who already agree with you. But politics is largely the process of convincing people who don't always agree with you.

This is a powerful statement even without its context, and I’m tempted to leave it at that. As a political journalist, I frequently hear appeals to “common sense” from politicians and ordinary citizens alike. It’s a time-honored tradition dating back to Thomas Paine. But appeals to common sense are also a way of shutting down debate, dismissing potential objections as nonsensical or elitist or both. The common-sensical argument may very well be the best argument, but it’s not the best argument because it seems intuitively correct. That’s a logical fallacy.

(None of this is to suggest that common sense doesn’t have value. It does — but it’s wanting as a logical argument. Similarly, criticism of common sense doesn’t imply the inverse: that something has value because it is complicated or counter-intuitive.)

Common sense is also, as Levin went on to say, “anti-political” because politics in a democratic form of government are based on the assumption that there are legitimate differences of opinion.

“If you say that if somebody doesn’t agree with you they have no common sense and they need not be listened to, it’s a great way to avoid the difficult work that is politics in a diverse country — or even in a town,” Levin said. “If only those who agree with you show up, and only those who show up matter, why do the hard work of convincing others?”

The particular context was Levin analyzing attempts to create “citizen courts” that could indict and judge people – often officials – for offenses against individual liberty. (This post is not to opine on the validity of these citizen courts or the broader “sovereign citizen” movement, which has frequently clashed with regular officials subscribing to mainstream legal theories.)

I wrote two articles about citizen courts in South Dakota: