When a society lacks common sense, absurd and irrational things can happen and, as a result, chaos and social disruption will prevail. What, then, is common sense? Common sense is widely known as “good sense and sound judgment in practical matters.” If so, we need to ask ourselves, “Do we have good sense and sound judgment? Are we practical?”
Unfortunately, the answer is “No.” Oftentimes, Koreans seem to have neither good sense nor sound judgment not only in domestic matters but also in foreign affairs. In the eyes of the international community, we do not have good sense about what is going on in the world and as a result, frequently make poor judgments. Oftentimes, our emotions, too, cloud our judgment. To make matters worse, we tend to cling to formality and face-saving, rather than being practical, thereby losing so many precious things.
However, many other countries value and act upon common sense. For example, American society is built upon common sense. In January 1776, Thomas Paine published an epoch-making pamphlet entitled “Common Sense” that kindled doubts in Americans’ minds about the British monarchy. Quoting from the Bible, Paine illustrated how monarchy goes against common sense. He pointed out that when the Israelites pleaded with Gideon, who had saved their country from the tyranny of Midian, to “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson,” Gideon answered, “I will not rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.” Consequently, “Common Sense” inspired the American people to fight the British monarchy and gain independence from British rule. Since “Common Sense” helped ignite the War of Independence in 1776, it has become a monumental classic in American history.
Thanks to Thomas Paine, who pointed out the importance of common sense, America has always been a country that values and respects common sense. If something defies common sense, therefore, Americans are reluctant to do it. In American society, common sense is associated with freedom, justice and equality as well. If something is against these values, many Americans not only refuse to do it, but also refuse to allow it. Such a tendency has helped America gain its good reputation as a country of decency, integrity and trustworthiness. That is why America has been esteemed in the international community as a world leader.
Perhaps that is why the world is now concerned about the possibility that another big, strong country that does not care about common sense could emerge as a new international police force or a world leader. If that happens, that country will not be a peacemaker. Rather, she will be like Big Brother, who turns other countries into police states. If the superpower possessed big data, it would be even more dreadful. She would surely put all the nations under constant surveillance and censorship, closely monitoring and even manipulating all the people on Earth. Then, surely it would be an Orwellian nightmare.
If people had respected common sense and thought rationally, there would not have been Hitler or Stalin in human history. Indeed, many of our problems, such as terrorism and totalitarianism, derive from the lack of common sense. So do tyranny and populism. If only we had followed common sense, we could have avoided so many mistakes and tragedies in our history. In a society that lacks or dismisses common sense, you can see irrationality and unpredictability are prevalent and rampant. On the contrary, in a society based on common sense, you can expect everything to be done rationally and reasonably. In such a society, you do not need to worry about the absurdity and violence that can regularly be found in a society where people ignore common sense
Experts point out that if only South Korea had been a country run by common sense, she would not have been as misguided and chaotic as today. In their eyes, Korea often seems to be run not by cool rationality, but by collective emotions that are prone to sentimentalism and impulsive judgments. If we had acted according to common sense, we could have avoided unnecessary clashes with other countries and would not have done things we should regret later. If we had valued common sense, we could have become a decent, reliable nation highly esteemed by other countries. And if we had respected common sense, we could have avoided so many absurd, unreasonable things that we have deplorably done.
In order to build a society based on common sense, reasonable and well-balanced people are surely a prerequisite. If we are liable to be swayed by impulsive emotions, we cannot follow common sense. A society of common sense requires gentle, well-cultured people who think rationally and calmly, examining things from various angles before reaching a conclusion.
In order to build a society of common sense, we need courteous and broad-minded global citizens. Only then can we be respected by other countries.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine. -- Ed.