The Death of Common Sense...

Common sense is dead. Common sense has been the glue that has held societies together throughout human history; a communal sense and understanding built up through common experience. But the Industrial Revolution triggered fundamental changes to our social structures that have accelerated into the globalised world of the 21st Century. This rapid pace of change has created a perception among many that they have more differences than commonalities with the people around them. Good sense is no longer common, as people of difference cultures, faiths and personal experiences see things very differently. This has led to crisis of identity and an escalating threat of serious conflict. But it is also only a perceived problem as we are all humans and have plenty in common with which to give birth to a new, global common sense. Strong leadership will be needed to foster this among the nations of the world.

Common Sense is defined as a “sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts”[1]. For it to exist, members of a society need to share many common experiences. In a world where one often has very little in common with the people they interact with on a daily basis, there is no guarantee that one person’s “simple perception of the situation or facts” is likely to match another’s. What makes sense to one person is becoming less and less likely to make sense to others of different races, cultures, faiths, socio-economic status and personal life experiences. This creates conflict and frustration, and can affect the ability of people understand how they can relate to and interact with each other.

Historically, geography has played a huge part in shaping human identity and social interaction. The barrier of distance prevented our ancestors from regular migrations and so largely kept them within their local environments. Immediate and extended families were more likely to live close to one another. Social circles were smaller and bound by those who you would come into contact with on a daily or weekly basis. Work was more likely to be local; working for local feudal land-owners, to family owned businesses, to nomadic lifestyles where everyone worked collectively to provide for the tribe. Food was locally caught or grown and diets were similar. Faith was generally shared; dictated by the tribal shaman, the local church or the country’s belief system. Only one language was likely to be spoken and a common history was largely shared by the village. Weather, diets and entertainment were all shared among people of local proximity. With so much shared experience, common sense and a communal moral code could evolve, reducing conflict and creating a sense of identity and purpose among the members of a community.

As technologies have developed, the geographic barriers of the past have gradually been pushed outwards. Boats, motor vehicles and aeroplanes have resulted in the regular migration of people over once prohibitive distances. Telephones and digital technologies have enabled the communication of ideas to opposite sides of the world. The impact of these technologies on the sense of community have been profound. Family units have increasing dispersed as they move suburbs, states, and countries away from each other. Commuting to work has become a necessary fact of life, meaning many now work well away from the family, and away from others that live locally to them. Multi-culturalism means that the faith, language, moral code and the cultural heritage and history of those living around us is less and less likely to be similar to our own. Friendships can be maintained in some way beyond geographic boundaries through communications technologies. A wealth of different experiences, cuisines, philosophies, forms of entertainment, sources of information have been opened up to members of modern society creating an endlessly varied personal experience of life.

In the past we would have had fewer acquaintances but a lot in common with those we did know. The consequence of the technology revolution is that we now interact with far more people than they ever have in human history, but have far less in common with them. We live near our neighbours, but frequently don’t know them and have little to do with them. We have work colleagues, but we don’t live nearby to them or necessarily socialize with them. We join hobby and sports groups, or interest groups online, but we don’t necessarily share moral or spiritual beliefs with the other members. Technology has allowed us to bridge physical distances, but an emotional gap has opened between members of society, steadily widening to the size of an abyss.

Technology’s triumph over geography is not the sole reason for this change. The structural changes in our school and work life have undermined even the closest of relationships, like that of the core family unit. Pre-industrial age, a family unit would spend virtually their whole week together. Work would be local and in many cases whole families would contribute to the upkeep and provision of the household. Social gatherings, whether it be church, village festivals or other forms of entertainment would be undertaken by the whole family. This close proximity meant that children were in constant contact with their parents, and husband and wife would have spent a lot of time together, sharing experiences and building on their partnership. From their first steps, children would form a strong identity of their place within the family unit, under the constant guidance of both masculine and feminine mentors.

Post-industrial age the traditional male bread-winner was ripped from the home to work away in factories. Society was not truly appreciated the consequences of this change. Suddenly, husbands and wives who had worked together for centuries spent the majority of the week apart and had far less time to spend with each other. Burdens at work and home were no longer shared and so resentments and frustration more likely to build. A distance began to build between men and women who suddenly found it much harder to relate to and appreciate each other. Children were deprived of regular contact and role-modelling with their fathers, resulting in a lack of balance between masculine and feminine influence. Not long after, children were shifted off to schools, meaning they also spent less time with their mothers and had to find role modelling from people outside the family; teachers and other children with different experiences.

Step forward into present day and the family unit has become even more isolated from each other. Both parents are now likely to work, increasing pressures on the household and decreasing the amount of time they spend together. From as early as three months, children are put into daycare, then into school with long day-care on either side. Throw in organized sports, multi-screened households and other weekend commitments and entertainment and it all equates to a dramatic reduction in the time families spend together. The experience of one family member is increasingly different from the experiences of the other members of a family, whether it be at work, school or in the home. This is by no means an argument against equality and women entering the workforce; the push for equality has been one of the many positive changes of modern society. But having both parents working full time means they miss out on time with each other, and their children miss out on valuable time with both of them. Ultimately, families have become deprived of time to create common experiences together.

With differences increasing within the immediate family unit, at the societal level the divides are becoming increasingly vast. There is little wonder that the trend in Western Society at the moment is instability within its governing bodies. England in turmoil after it votes Brexit, US in turmoil after it votes Trump, and Australia in turmoil after it votes for anyone and everyone; with Rudd, Gillard, Rudd, Abbott and Turnbull all taking turns at being Prime Minister over a five-year period. The reduction in common experiences and the decline of common sense is directly responsible for this political ineptitude; how can politicians agree on anything when the people they represent are so varied in morals, faith, opinions and experiences.

History shows that differences inevitably lead to conflict. Not because humans can’t handle differences and change, but because difference is a convenient scape-goat for those with some influence and an agenda. Australia has a history of blaming crime, un-employment and other social problems on minority communities; the Greeks and Italians in the 50’s and 60’s, the Vietnamese in the 90’s; Muslims in the current era and Aboriginals throughout this whole period. And there have been many brutal and horrific examples of this back through history; Nazi Germany’s persecution of the Jews, The Christian crusades against the Muslims and Jews of the mid-centuries, the Roman persecution of Christians in the four centuries following Jesus’ crucifixion. The sentiment that has seen Trump elected, England break from the European Union and the growing incidences of terrorism, suggest that major conflict is on the horizon.

In the meantime, there is a more immediate and personal impact of the decline of common experience and the death of common sense, and that is its impact on mental health. The rate of suicide in Australia has grown an average 6% per annum in the five years to 2015[2], well above the average rate of population growth over the same period. In 2016, people aged 15-19 with symptoms of probable serious mental illness was recorded at 22.8%, up from 18.7% five years earlier[3]. This is mirrored by similar growth trends from survey’s conducted in the USA and UK. In March 2017, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that depression is now the leading cause of ill health and disability, having risen by more than 18 per cent worldwide since 2005. The Australian Bureau of Statistics describe an impact of mental health as “an individual’s ability to relate with their family, friends, work-mates and the broader community is affected by their mental health”[4]. They got close with this description, but it seems far more likely that the opposite is true; that the individual’s inability to relate with those around them is the root cause of the poor mental health. Perhaps the decline in shared experience and the inability to find a common sense leads us to struggle to form an identity and purpose in life.

With mental health declining and the threat of larger, more catastrophic fall-out looming, we must turn to the answer of how to combat this problem. There is little chance of (and many good reasons against) turning the clock back and re-introducing the commonalities of the past. Instead we need to actively work to find a new Common Sense, a set of morals and ideals that are global and common to all humans, on which we can foster a greater sense of community both locally and globally. Despite all our perceived differences, the reality is that humans have plenty of emotions and qualities in common that could be drawn on. Here’s my effort at one possible set of values:

Health – All peoples suffer from disease and ill-health. Aging is an unavoidable part of life. We should celebrate the human life-cycle and all its stages, and strive for good health for all.

Environment – Local environs may differ dramatically, but the Earth is our common home and we need to take care of it collectively for human life to survive into the future.

Love – All societies and peoples celebrate love in some form or another. It is perhaps the single most uniting emotion for humans. It should be at the heart of any global Common Sense.

Peace – War and violence is never a lasting solution. It claims both the victim and the victor in the long run. We can and should strive to always settle differences peacefully.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the twenty-first century without an acronym and these principals form one: HELP. If we base our common sense on these principals, and the idea of always aiming to help those around us, then we may go a long way to creating a new sense of morals and principals that we can build our identities on and reduce the growing concerns of mental health and conflict.

But principles alone are not enough; we need strong leadership to implement and defend them. This is certainly lacking in the Western societies at present, where politicians and leaders are in constant fear of the opinion polls and being ousted and so base their decisions on fickle popular opinion rather than good policy. Faith leaders have proven no more effective; centuries of corruption and abuse within the Catholic Church and the extremes of the Muslim faith are doing terrible damage to the credibility of that church and resulting in a decline in faith. And the rise of science and secular education has created an increasingly atheist population that is taught very little about spiritual belief and health. The political and spiritual leadership void has been filled by corporations like Google and Facebook, and celebrities. Neither are good candidates to build a new moral code around. The United Nations is the closest thing we have at the moment to global leadership and perhaps needs to lead the way in forming a new set of principles and fostering strong support and leadership within every nation.

Common sense has been the glue that has held human societies together in the past, enabled by shared experience. The rapid pace of change since the Industrial Revolution has reduced commonalities, increasing the number of people we know, but reducing the depth to which we know them. This has given rise to a crisis of identity, a rise in poor mental health and an increasing inability for humans to relate to those around them. The consequence of this is rising levels of suicide at one end of the spectrum, and a growing risk of global conflict at the opposite end, as perceived differences start to outweigh the commonalities between people. However, this is purely a perception problem; as members of the human race we have enough inherently in common to address this problem. New principles of a common, global sense need to be established and strong leaders are needed to support and foster these principles among the nations of the world.


[1] Merriam-Webster Dictionary

[2] The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 3303.0 - Causes of Death in Australia, 2015, 28/09/2016

[3] Mission Australia, 2016 Youth Survey

[4] ABS, 1301.0 – Year Book Australia, 2009-10