If you don’t know Douglas Adams I recommend you pick up the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy immediately and discover his take on the universe. His comedic philosophical writings are brilliant for all ages.
Recently I was rereading the Salmon of Doubt, a book published posthumously of some of his writings found on his computer after his heart attack. One piece I came across was brilliant analysis of the concept of common sense. It was written for publication in the Independent on Sunday.
Adams starts off the article by explaining how as opposed to the old Soviet Union which was governed by rules in the West we have always highly valued common sense but we “forget that common sense is often just as arbitrary. You’ve got to know the rules. Especially if you travel.”
He uses the example of “a little run-in with the police” that he had while driving in London and overtook on the inside lane. “Not a piece of wild and reckless driving in the circumstances, honestly it was just the way the traffic was flowing” but enough to get him pulled over. “[A]gast” at the dangerous location the police officer had pulled him over in to berate him while his heavily pregnant wife remained in the car he gave up trying to argue with the officers who were busy stating that he “wasn’t in the universe [he] was in England”! He quickly admired all wrong and excused himself on the fact he had recently been in the US where, of course, American readers will say, it is “perfectly legal, perfectly normal, and, hence, perfectly safe.”
Adams then goes on to argue about the experience he had at the hands of a Californian law enforcement officer when he “parked in the only available space, which happened to be on other side of the [empty] street.” The fast acting officer explained that parking against the flow of traffic “that would be there […] if there was any traffic” is a dangerous crime in the states even if it is perfectly normal on busy English roads.
Lucky enough to get away with a only a ticket. Adams believed the officer would “rather have deported [him] before [his] subversive ideas brought chaos and anarchy to streets that normally had to cope with nothing more alarming than a few simple assault rifles. Which, as we know, in the States are perfectly legal” and, yet, a bizarre concept for Brits to grasp.
While the Europeans and the Americans have generally come to understand each others’ ways there are a few more extreme examples of cultural common sense gone awry. “In China, for instance, the poet James Fenton was once stopped for having a light on his bicycle. How would it be, the police officer asked him severely, if everybody did that?”
But Douglas Adams’ hammer in the coffin of common sense comes in the form of a Japanese example. He “tells of a court case in which a driver who was being prosecuted for driving up onto the pavement, crashing into a shop window and killing a couple of pedestrians was allowed to enter the fact that he was blind drunk at the time as a plea in mitigation.”
Sometimes we complain that our children have no common sense but maybe we should reevaluate this comment. Our children are just trying to learn all the unwritten rules of a complicated world.