Once when I was a teacher (at an American university), staff were sent an email asking that we “make clear to your students that attendance is compulsory.” Apparently, some students had complained, on receiving a low grade, that they had not been told that it was necessary to actually come to class. I wrote at the time:
The whole edifice of common sense can no longer be taken for granted. The more litigious American society becomes the more this edifice will be eroded… A vast legal superstructure, wordily detailing the bleeding obvious will gradually come to occupy the set of silent rules that had previously regulated - but also enabled - human interaction.
It is difficult, in the English-speaking world, to extract this phrase, “common sense”, from the ideological and political uses to which it is put. Recent examples aside, it’s typically contrasted with intellectual abstraction and employed as a tool of anti-intellectualism. “British common sense,” invariably “robust”, is used in opposition to anything sounding vaguely intellectual or in opposition to bureaucratic measures, especially if originating in “Brussels” of course. Yet there is no reason to think that “common sense” is more prevalent in Britain than elsewhere. There may even be reason to think that it’s less, given that "health and safety" regulations increasingly encroach on areas that, in other countries, are left to judgement and trust.
Not long before the lockdown my family went on a trip to Italy. We stayed in the walled town of Lucca, between Pisa and Florence. The walls are around twelve meters high and extend round the whole town. Many people walk or run on the path that runs along the top of the wall. We were walking along this path when we came to a playground. We took our two boys, 4 and 17 months to play and run about. The playground is itself only a few metres from the edge of the wall and the sheer twelve metre drop. There were a few signs here and there, but no fence or barrier. We remember saying that this would surely be unthinkable in England from a “health and safety” point of view. Where we might expect to find such regulations, there was instead trust, or, if you like, a reliance on “common sense”.
I wonder to what extent this “common sense” depends on or relates to a sense of the common – of shared space, a shared situation, a shared conversation. The idea that we are all involved in a common project. Not a “goal orientated” project, but the project known as life. We are all, equally, participants, commentators, different of course but sharing a common situation, a common set of circumstances or problems.
Again in Italy. We were in a café and our four-year-old was kneeling on a plastic chair with his hands gripping the back. It tipped forward and he fell to the floor. It was like a stone falling in a pond, creating ripples of conversation and exclamations on the adjacent tables. He got up and laughed and the laughter was immediately echoed. It was a laugh, part of the generality of human laughter, a common currency. His fall from the chair was, in other words, immediately a public event. It did not occur in the bubble of “our business” and then awkwardly spill out into the circumference of other people’s bubbles. The bubbles were never there. There was never a question that it was part of the shared conversation, the common project.
I’ve experienced and read lots of instances here in England of people not really taking the lockdown rules seriously, including people being verbally abused for wearing face masks. There’s a certain “it’s all nonsense” hostility you encounter here in certain quarters, or a brusque indifference. And in response to something on twitter, I wondered to what extent this indifference or hostility, as manifest in behaviour, was present in European countries like Greece, Italy, Spain and so on. The replies (yes, anecdotal) seemed to bear out the idea that there is, in these other countries, a stronger sense of “we’re all in this together”, in a way that involves an element of sacrifice and solidarity, and a part suspension of everyday life. I don’t think it’s a question of political conformity. No one can reasonably accuse the Greeks or Spanish of being politically subservient. But I wonder if it’s easier to implement and observe the rules, the universal imperatives, where there’s already a sense of the “common project”, of the collective, a “sense of the common”.
The measures taken to limit and contain the virus are viewed by some as a pretext for political repression. No doubt they will be used as such by a Tory government. Yet they are also an invitation to participate in a collective activity to save lives. In Greece or Spain and elsewhere there was a recognition that - in this instance - to respect the rules is to respect life. a universal imperative without exemptions. Legally it is, finally, unenforceable and has to rely on a sense of public duty, of people not exempting themselves or treating it as a spectacle happening to others. A pandemic allows us to see the varying degrees to which certain political systems and cultures are able to rise to that non-national challenge. Johnson's empty rhetorical reference to "British common sense" was a last-ditch appeal to an exceptionalism already refuted by events.