Against Common Sense

On Berating a Septuagenarian Five-Year-Old

/ by Ben Kopit

The latest in Ben Kopit’s series entitled “Explaining Trump to Europeans”


A confession. This morning, I opened my computer with the intent to write an apologetic email, recusing myself from this column. Not because it’s become hard to find things to say about our relentlessly-still-there commander-in-chief, but because it’s become hard to approach these remarks with the kind of clinical detachment necessary to craft commentaries that are insightful and useful. Like any moment of truly destabilizing transition, this administration has spawned a handful of cottage industries that answer newly-created needs. One is a new breed of lobbyist who helps guide moneyed/institutional interests through the choppy waters being splashed up by an unengaged neophyte who doesn’t understand the powers he does and does not wield. Another is the Trump interpreter, who attempts to explain these waters to the masses of people who don’t have boats, but feel as though they’d like to understand the storm that is making it increasingly difficult to tread water. The output of this latter group is full of rants and jeremiads that seem to provide little more than some vague catharsis or battle cry.


Leaving aside the fact that berating a septuagenarian five-year-old is still chiding a child and, therefore, comes off as mean-spirited (as opposed to explaining how to interpret/handle the rule of a child emperor, which is a mature response), this approach is probably not merely pointless, but actually destructive. It plays right into the hands of someone who wants you to be running on pure emotion. Why? Because emotion is where bias lives (even intellectual bias), and bias is the ironically renewable energy source that fuels this administration.


This was made freshly clear, watching Trump’s handling of Puerto Rican storm relief. The most generous interpretation of his slow and weak response is that, after Texas and Florida, he felt as though he’d proven his ability to react quickly, and was acting upon his own, or counting upon the nation’s, fatigue bias. Sadly, if one looks at the pattern of Trump’s interactions with people who are slightly darker or more hispanophone than him, it appears that racial bias is the more likely culprit. After all, he called the Puerto Rican inability to help itself “laziness,” resorting to base racial stereotyping. Despite the fact that he was talking about American citizens, this is of a piece with his calling Mexicans “rapists” or identifying a non-existent immigrant crime spree. In all these instances, he appeals to a racist “truthiness” (to borrow Stephen Colbert’s constantly useful neologism) with no basis in fact.


Listing other instances of Trump acting upon/appealing to bias is so easy as to appear unnecessary – the transgendered military ban, his response to Charlottesville, everything to do with climate and/or coal. But how do overly-emotional responses to these disgusting episodes play into Trump’s hands? Because emotion is also where left wing biases live. After all, it is just as inaccurate to vilify Wall Street, as it is to celebrate it. It is just as inaccurate to assume someone who’s working for Exxon is in the pocket of big-oil, as it is to tar someone by racial association. (If you want a counter-example to the former, look at the surprising fact that juries of police officers are much more likely to convict policemen and women of misconduct than are civilian juries.) Okay, maybe those last biases aren’t exactly equal, lest we devolve into Trump’s “blame on both sides” false equivalencies and post-Charlottesville white-power equivocating. Yet, even acknowledging that all biases are not equal, when one gets into pitting bias against bias, emotion against emotion, one is entering into the world of “alternative facts” and arguments that can yield, at most, pyrrhic victories.


This brings me to my personal pet peeve in the American political lexicon: “Common sense.” Politicians in America, particularly conservative politicians, love to call out “common sense,” and while Trump is generally not folksy enough to use these two words together, his appeals to “truthiness” amount to the same thing. Common sense is an appeal to bias. More than that, it is an appeal to all forms of bias. It is “common sense” that argues that the “other” is dangerous, but it is also “common sense” to see that the world, as we see it, is the world as it should be. “Common sense” appeals to the sense of the familiar. For antebellum slave owners, it was common sense that whites were superior to blacks. More than that, “common sense” dictates that the world that we see is the world as it is. “Common sense” suggested that the earth was the center of the solar system. Similarly, “common sense” suggests that a rock is not mostly empty space, and that time flows unwaveringly, both of which physics has revealed in truth. “Common sense” is anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, and anti-egalitarian (when it isn’t hyper-egalitarian to the point of anarchy).


“Common sense” is more than an excuse to be lazy. It’s an excuse to hold a belief in the face of convincing counter-logic. It short-circuits arguments by turning non-religious matters into articles of faith, and making those who would disagree into ungodly sophists. Any opinion that flies in the face of “common sense” must be wrong, even if one can’t immediately spot the holes in such arguments. Once a belief, whether it is biased, simply wrong, or even correct, becomes shielded behind the wholesome power of “common sense,” it no longer needs to be examined. When someone learns not to examine their beliefs, they necessary learn not to examine themselves (at least in ways other than whether they conform to their unexamined beliefs), and an unexamined self lacks the critical tools to examine the outside world with any sort of political nuance. The cry to “common sense” encourages citizens to cling fast to their biases, no matter how noxious (or occasionally noble) they may be.


So what to do about this dilemma? If one only appeals to logic, one often loses to the more seductive rhetoric of those who pander to emotion. On the other hand, if one gets down in the mud slinging bias against bias, one has already lost. Great orators and essayists find a way to do both, but that becomes difficult when one’s eyes grow clouded by rage or sadness. This is why I almost relinquished this box of mini-soap this morning. If I continue, I’ll probably err on the side of analytical detachment, but I can’t promise it won’t be boring.

Ben Kopit

is a screenwriter based in L.A.