“They’re Confused” – Why Common Sense Is Often Wrong

“They’re Confused” – Why Common Sense Is Often Wrong May 1, 2018

“You may be book smart, but you don’t have any common sense!”

Have you ever heard that? Or maybe you’ve said it? I heard it quite a bit growing up. I was Hermione with shorter hair – there were many times when I was an insufferable know-it-all, with all the predictable responses.

Occasionally when I hear “you don’t have any common sense” (either directed at me or at others) it refers to a lack of some life skill the speaker thinks should be universal: the ability to change a tire (I can) or to know when a particular vegetable is ready to be picked (I’m one step above clueless).

More frequently, though, the charge is leveled when someone asks a hard question that challenges someone else’s foundational assumptions about the way the world works. Or sometimes, that challenges their cultural norms. The two are often difficult to separate – people tend to assume that their cultural norms are the good and proper way things are supposed to be.

Recently I’ve seen that expressed another way: someone will say “they’re confused.”

That’s a patronizing way of saying “they’re proposing something I’ve never thought about, so rather than think through the matter, I’m going to ridicule them.”

Are chimps persons?

And that brings us to this April 7 editorial in The New York Times by Jeff Sebo titled “Should Chimpanzees Be Considered ‘Persons’?” He discusses the legal efforts of the Nonhuman Rights Project.

Since 2013, the group has been working on behalf of two chimpanzees, Kiko and Tommy, currently being held in cages by their “owners” without the company of other chimpanzees. It is asking the courts to rule that Kiko and Tommy have the right to bodily liberty and to order their immediate release into a sanctuary where they can live out the rest of their lives with other chimpanzees.

If you’ve been reading this blog for very long that won’t sound strange to you. In an animist worldview, of course chimps are persons. So is every other living being, and so are many ecosystems and natural forces that aren’t generally considered to be alive by the mainstream culture.

Arguing for personhood for the chimps, Sabo says:

“Person” is best understood as a moral and legal concept that refers to an individual who can hold moral and legal rights.

This is a far step for many people – it goes against so-called common sense. A person is a human and an animal isn’t, right? Yet we need only look closely at chimpanzees to intuitively understand what science confirms: they are our closest biological relatives. They are not human, but is the gap between humans and chimps so large that only we are persons while they are relegated to the class of “things”?

Spider Monkeys. A more distant relative than Chimpanzees, but a relative nonetheless.

Intelligent, thoughtful, compassionate people may have differing ideas on that question. I fall firmly on the side of personhood, but I also realize that this concept will take a very long time until it becomes common sense in mainstream circles.

Or are animists “confused”?

But not everyone is debating in good faith.

On his daily radio show, Rev. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, responded to Sebo’s editorial.

Now, we were talking about confusion … between what it means to be an animal and what it means to be a person, a human person. [It] comes down to that distinction between understanding whether or not humans possess a particular status because we are made in the image of God or whether there is something far less than that particular status …

Without the Christian worldview, wonder simply turns into confusion.

I read Mohler’s blog on a semi-regular basis. Part of that is “know your enemy” and part is that it’s interesting to read a very intelligent, very articulate man who happens to believe some truly horrid things.

Here, though, he’s being disingenuous. Mohler talks about worldview constantly – he mentions it multiple times in this piece. Animists and others who would recognize the personhood of non-human animals aren’t confused – they simply have a different worldview. Mohler clearly knows this, but he refuses to engage the debate at that level.

What he calls a “Christian worldview” or a “biblical worldview” would be more accurately described as a fundamentalist or a Calvinist worldview. There are plenty of Christians who do not share his foundational assumptions about how the world works.

And rather than acknowledge this difference of worldview, he condescendingly calls everyone else “confused.”

That doesn’t advance the cause of civil debate in a civil society, and it doesn’t move us closer to understanding that even if we don’t consider non-human animals to be persons, they are clearly far more than “things.”

Confusion about cultural norms

Another place I see the charge of “they’re confused” thrown out is in the transgender debate… or more properly, the debate over whether we should show transgender persons the same respect and courtesy we show cisgender persons.

If you think there even needs to be a debate on this, you aren’t paying attention.

At one level, I get it. Our culture teaches that there are two genders and that they are inseparably tied to biological sex. That cultural norm is so ingrained that we call it common sense. When I read the comments on a newspaper article on a bathroom bill or other such nonsense (I know, never read the comments…), inevitably I see someone make the claim that transgender people are “confused.” Sometimes they’re actually trying to be nice, though most times they’re just being condescending.

It’s not my place to speak for transgender people. It is my place to strongly encourage anyone who thinks transgender people are “confused” to sit down and listen to them. My transgender friends aren’t confused, except to the extent they’ve tried to force themselves into a box where they don’t fit, because society tells them they must.

They know who and what they are. If that doesn’t fit into your cultural norms, that’s your problem, not theirs.

Examining unstated assumptions

Any time “common sense” is invoked, a flashing red light should go off in your head. Because most times, what it means is “stuff we assume is true but haven’t really thought much about.”

Sometime when I was accused of having no common sense back in high school I really was being an insufferable know-it-all. But most of the time, I was asking “why?” in situations where there were no easy, simple, black or white answers.

We like things easy, simple, and black or white. We’re the descendants of the early humans and pre-humans who learned to quickly discern if a particular animal could be eaten or if it would eat them. Those without that particular common sense were removed from the gene pool. There is a time and place for quick binary judgements.

But that time and place doesn’t extend to our deepest philosophical questions. It doesn’t extend to matters of how we interact with non-human persons, or to how we respect people who don’t conform to our cultural norms.

When you hear someone say “they’re confused” you’re probably hearing a clash of differing worldviews – unstated assumptions about the world and the way it works. As with our religious assumptions, our cultural and ethical assumptions need to be identified and examined. Only then can we decide if they’re helpful or harmful, to ourselves and to the rest of the world.

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