Should have known better… AKA “Common Sense”

More than one person with a public image has proclaimed Ahmed Mohamed should have known better. He, a 14-year-old boy with a Muslim name, should have known how his teachers would have responded to him bringing a device with wires to school.

He should have used common sense.

More than one educator has criticized Cheryl LaPorte for including a task where students copied an Islamic religious phrase in order to get a sense of the complexity of Arabic writing. She should have known how students and parents in her school district would respond.

She should have used common sense.
One child brought a textbook publisher’s image and word choice to his mother’s attention who then brought the image to the media. As the conversation expanded, people commented that the publishers should have done better. They should have known that it was misleading to refer to slaves as “workers”, in the same category as immigrants or indentured servants with a chance at freedom. 
They should have used common sense.

In each of these cases, someone has used the phrase “common sense” to defend the exactly opposite position.

  • Ahmed’s defenders said his teachers should have used common sense before responding. It was a clock.
  • LaPorte’s defenders said concerned parents should use common sense before responding. The Shahada isn’t a magical incantation. Simply writing the phrase doesn’t make one Muslim.
  • The publishing company defenders said readers should have used common sense before responding. The word choice in the single image isn’t indicative of the entire slavery-related curriculum.
With respect to Thomas Paine, an appeal to “common sense” is a lazy and counter-productive way to engage in discourse in a multi-cultural, diverse, society with multiple perspectives. If your reader agrees with you, congrats! You’ve preached to the choir, rallied the troops, and strengthened groupthink. If your reader disagrees with you, congratulations! You’ve shut down the conversation and implied that anyone who disagrees with you lacks basic, common sense.
I’ve reached the conclusion that if we truly want to engage with others, seek to understand, or get where others are coming from, the phrase it’s just “common sense” has got to go. If your fall back position is “it’s just common sense”, consider instead, the power of claims and counterclaims. Also presented as point/counter-point or pro/con, the approach (albeit an approach steeped in Western civilization and not necessarily the best or right way) forces readers and writers to be transparent in their thinking.
Adopting an approach of claim/counterclaim as the writer forces you to see the topic or issue at hand from more than one perspective. More than that, it removes you from the equation. I’ve written before about the challenges of confirmation bias and the challenges of changing one another’s mind. One way to ensure your reader won’t change their mind is to suggest that you are right and they are wrong. Using claim and counterclaim is a small step towards checking your own biases and actively working to see the other position.
An example: 
Claim: Given recent events, students should get every opportunity to see and interact with the complex stories, people, and aspects of the Muslim faith in order to combat stereotypes.
Counterclaim: Given recent events, teachers should back off of teaching about aspects of the Muslim faith that goes beyond the basics. 
Neither is about me, my opinion, or my experiences. Both can be supported or refuted with evidence. One isn’t right and one isn’t wrong. For me, the power of writing down a counterclaim is that it forces me to literally think from the “other side.” Not the other side of the issue mind you – it’s hubris to suggest all situations are ORs – rather, from the other side of my claim. As a reader, you can refute my claim with a different one or re-state the counterclaim so that it better matches your take on the situation. Pick a topic you’re passionate about and give it a try. 
See how it feels and then put your claim out there – and be open the counterclaim. 

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