Forget common sense. Find common ground.
Published anonymously in January of 1776, the pamphlet entitled Common Sense became an immediate sensation, and it still remains one of the all-time best selling American titles. Nearly three months after its release, Thomas Paine became publicly known as the author. But he repudiated his copyright, which gave all colonial printers the freedom to issue their own edition. Its unprecedented large-scale distribution played a remarkable role in uniting average citizens and political leaders in the Thirteen Colonies, ultimately helping to inspire people to seek independence from Great Britain in the summer of that same year.
How could a forty-eight page pamphlet have spread like wildfire and swayed public opinion so decisively?
While European and colonial elites believed that common people had no place in government or political debates, Paine avoided flowery prose and complex Latin phrases used by Enlightenment-era writers, opting instead for a more direct, concise style that helped make the information accessible and his political ideas tangible to everyone. More significantly, he structured Common Sense as if it were a sermon, relying on biblical references to make his case. Most people in America had a working knowledge of the Bible, so his arguments rang true and touched a nerve in the countryside. Furthermore, the pamphlet was sold and distributed widely and read aloud at taverns and public gatherings. This brought average colonists, even those who had not been taught how to read, into the political conversation.
Common Sense became immensely popular mainly because Paine appealed to widespread convictions. He denounced aristocracy, which together with monarchy were “two ancient tyrannies” violating the laws of nature, human reason, and the “universal order of things”. He triggered sentiments of the Great Awakening — a spiritual renewal thru which people had begun to disassociate themselves from the established and complacent approach to worship — to foster a sense of American identity and patriotism.
The irony in all of this is that Paine was an Englishman who had migrated to America at the age of 38, just fourteen months prior to publishing the historic pamphlet in which he raised provocative points, not the least of which was “the absurdity in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island”. Even more ironic is the fact that, although he believed in God, he was against any sort of institutional religion, including the Bible, which he referred to as “an imposition upon the world”.
For a “man of reason”, these contradictions don’t seem very reasonable; which could in part explain why only six people attended his funeral.
Several of his peers in the 18th century, as well as some historians, politicians and enthusiasts that followed, accused Paine of being reckless and utopian at best, a hypocrite and traitor at worst. But in the end, Paine’s pamphlet was a powerful appeal to the human spirit. At a time when many still hoped for reconciliation with Britain, he employed rhetoric as a means to arouse resentment towards the Crown while evoking freedom and equality.
If we could ask the man himself today, he would probably suggest that his write-up was a no-brainer.
So here we are, almost two and one half centuries later, and we find ourselves constantly flirting with the notion that calling out “common sense” will solve controversial issues. In modern times, “common sense” has become associated with a basic ability shared by nearly all people to understand and judge whether something is true or false, right or wrong, and can therefore be expected of them without any need for debate. The expression is frequently used for rhetorical effect and appealed to as some sort of higher intelligence, or independent authority.
We flash it like a badge of honor when our own perceptions of reality seem threatened, or when we feel the need to justify our actions without breaking a sweat. We prefer calling it “common sense” instead of “our own sense”, perhaps because we don’t like to admit that we’re more comfortable in letting personal bias drive our decision-making, or because we’d rather skip the debate altogether.
But let’s revisit history for a brief moment. It is quite revealing that Paine’s original title for the pamphlet was Plain Truth, until a friend suggested Common Sense instead. This begs the question: whose ‘plain truth’? As it turns out, Paine’s masterpiece was anything but “common sense”. The brilliance of the pamphlet — and arguably the main reason why it had such lasting impact — lies in the fact that it was presented in such a way that it enabled everybody to actively participate in the discussion about independence. Akin to a magic trick that nobody could quite decipher, Paine created “common sense” by engaging the population at large. His pamphlet served as the platform.
In sum, while modern definition of “common sense” has morphed into the absence of debate, the success of Paine’s work was all about encouraging it!
Since Aristotle, the meaning of “common sense” has suffered many mutations, becoming oftentimes a lazy reflex that limits possibilities for in-depth conversation. The 21st century is unfolding with a growing list of critical global issues that affect us all. In such a complex environment, general assumptions about what makes sense or not are dangerously counter-productive. It is time to shift our attention towards finding common ground. This shift in mindset creates space for dialogue and the exchange of ideas, and must be sought out as fertile territory for creativity and innovation.
As Dr. Daniel Coleman said, “understanding diverse perspectives allows collaborative solutions to rise from chaos”.
The challenge for many leaders today is that conversation requires, first of all, the willingness and capacity to listen. But the more we continue to overload our attention spans with distractions and interruptions, the harder it is to develop and cultivate this vital skill. The other key factor is the ability to ask questions. It is thru thoughtful questions that we can truly challenge and learn from each other. But our impatience and compulsive obsession with quick answers seem to be only accelerating, thanks to a communications industry that measures the success of devices by how much time users spend on them. We are constantly allowing quality and effectiveness to be overshadowed by quantity and efficiency. Prof. Sherry Turkle offers some sound advice in her wonderful essay “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk”: “To reclaim conversation for yourself, your friendships and society, push back against viewing the world as one giant app.”
Deep inside, we all share a yearning to make sense of the world. It is human nature. We are curious and inquisitive beings, and we should remind each other about this every once in a while. It should be a good enough reason to get closer together and hear each other out.
Although “common sense” works wonders as a shield from our own vulnerabilities, seeking common ground is a much more promising idea, one that puts our motivations to the test. We should question everything, especially our own assumptions. Real dialogue helps advance humanity. And the more we focus on being human and less on being right, the better sense we’ll be able to make of the world.
It’s a no-brainer.