Against Armchair Iconoclasts
It is perhaps a truism to say that common sense is an uncommon thing, but at the very least it is a truism that has the advantage of being true. Not only is common sense an uncommon thing, it is also a selectively applied thing — by which I mean it is a thing we have little trouble exercising in small matters, but which often eludes us in big ones.
Allow me to pull an illustration from the programming world since I spend forty hours of my week there. Meet Jim. Jim is a novice with mere months of experience under his belt. He's the newest member of the development team and he's eager to prove himself. While poring over a piece of code from one of the senior devs, Jim sees a function he doesn't fully understand. Since the point of the thing escapes him, he concludes that the point does not exist. He deletes the function — and in doing so, renders the application completely useless.
At this point, I'm sure we're together in thinking that Jim is a pinhead who should be cussed out six ways from Sunday. But wait. It gets better.
Imagine further that when Jim is found out, he refuses to apologize and correct his mistake. Instead, he doubles down. He's flatly uninterested in hearing the psenior devs explain the rationale behind the code he so casually quashed. What's more, he has the nerve to insist that he knows better because he's the newest member of the team and therefore possesses a fresher perspective than does some tenured old fart.
Should Jim be fired? Absolutely. Thrown out on his ear? Probably. Taken seriously as a contributor to the vast sum of programming knowledge? Not on your life. And so common sense carries the day, with no survivors. Simple, wasn't it?
Given my opening paragraph, the attentive reader already knows where I'm going with this and will therefore anticipate my next question — if this plain-vanilla common sense may be so readily applied to Jim the Jobless Programmer, why not to the weightier matters of human history and tradition? We're fully capable of recognizing a buffoon, it seems, so long as he's bungling his career and not, say, the institution of marriage; as soon as he touches the latter he becomes, not a buffoon, but a Social Justice Warrior — may he live forever — and we fall over ourselves to throw him a Roman triumph.
I mentioned Chesterton's Fence Principle last week. If you know me outside of the internet you know I talk about it a lot, and that's because I believe it is important, critically important, perhaps the single most important thing we moderns can take from Chesterton. In his essay “The Drift from Domesticity” he writes,
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.
Modern man is an iconoclast, but he hasn't the decency to be an honest one. Honesty would require that he at least understand the purpose of what he is trying to smash, and he is far too lazy to be bothered with that. So he approves the destruction of things older than he is, built by men wiser than he is, from the comfort of his soda-stained armchair — because It Is The Current Year.
“Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set,” quoth Solomon. But today's reformer is not content with merely removing the landmark: he must also style himself his father's moral and intellectual superior. Like Jim the Jobless Programmer, he compounds his offense with arrogance. He explains why the landmark beneath his boot heel is actually Racist, Sexist, Ageist, Abelist, Homophobic, Transphobic, or Privileged (or some appalling combination of these New and Improved Seven Deadly Sins). In reality, the landmark is guilty of just one thing, and that is the crime of being older and deeper than the diaper-clad simpleton trying to abolish it.
Common sense will tell you that this is all quite backward, the very opposite of a good and healthy approach to life, the universe, and everything. But this is also where common sense is nowhere to be found for an unfortunate majority of people. They've crowded it out with thoughts of capital-p Progress and the deification of “forward-thinking.” They never stop to ask what they're progressing toward; they don't have time to appreciate the fact that forward-thinking is not at all helpful when you're walking on a cliff. Sometimes what you want is thinking that is very backward indeed. You may find your fathers decided to put a fence there precisely because they understood how deadly the lack of one would be.