Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Planning to promise this New Year's to lost weight, quit smoking or spend more time with your family? Those resolutions are tough to keep. Instead, you should do me a favor by simply removing one insufferable two-word phrase from your lexicon: "common sense."
With all due respect to Thomas Paine, no cliché more richly deserves a place in the rhetorical wastebasket. But before I can tell you what's wrong with common sense, you have to understand what the phrase means. Here's the definition, courtesy of Goodman's dictionary: "What I believe and think you should believe too."
So when the Miami Herald editorializes that Miami-Dade County's employee tuition program "should be revamped with an eye to thrift and common sense," what they're saying is that it should be revamped to be more to the liking of the Miami Herald editorial board. When Milford, Michigan's Michael Miller says, "I'm all for the leash law, it makes common sense," he means that he, in all his alliterative wisdom, knows best what the town's dog policies should be. And when Nishit Vasavada of Fremont, California objects to the McMansion next door by declaring, "There has to be some kind of common sense to this," well, you get the idea.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that those examples all come from this morning's papers (and, believe me, there were plenty of others to choose from). Yes, everyone from politicians to PR spinsters to proletarians has fallen in love with common sense. Nowhere, NOWHERE, is the phrase more loathsome, however, than in the immigration debate.
For example, soon-to-be-former Congressman J.D. Hayworth declared on MSNBC earlier this year that "the common-sense consensus is for enforcement." Common sense to him means border fences, enlisting state and local police in enforcing immigration law and preventing public programs from aiding illegal immigrants. In short, what part of "illegal" don't you understand?!?!
On the other side, Ted Kennedy told the Washington Post, "It's far better for American jobs and wages to have a practical, common-sense policy of legal immigration." What he means is that we should offer illegal immigrants a way to legalize their status and stay in the country, have them perform jobs Americans won't and offer them the same public benefits as American citizens. Don't you know that immigrants are who made this county great?!?!
Hey J.D., since you only won 46% of the vote this year, maybe your views aren't as common as you thought. Hey Ted, if millions of people like J.D. don't agree with you, who are you to declare your opinion to be common sense?
That, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with common sense. Whenever a speaker invokes the term as a way to persuade, he or she has made an inherently self-defeating argument. If your sense were so common, after all, no persuading would be necessary. So please, next time just say, "It's simply uncommon sense."
Written and compiled by staff writers and editors, GOVERNING View is an on-the-ground, and sometimes behind-the-scenes, look at the topics we're covering in print and online. From notes on what's up in statehouses, county courthouses and city halls, to encounters with people, places and things, GOVERNING View is a window into the side of state and local government you don't always see.