There’s nothing sensible about excusing brutes and villains

Posted on January 7, 2022

A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. (Picure:BBC)

The reformer and writer, Thomas Paine, penned the words below this image in 1775. The title of the work was Common Sense and Paine was challenging the notion that there was any such thing.

On a daily basis, most of us would have trouble agreeing with him. Parents and teachers frequently bemoan the lack of it when berating the wayward looniness of daft teenagers. We invoke it tuttingly with strangers when witnessing eccentric or disturbing behaviour in public. We are asked to use it to control the pandemic by politicians, who flatter us by assuring us of their confidence in our ability to recognise and employ it. Plain old common sense.   

Or maybe lazy old common sense? Albert Einstein, who knew a thing or two about stuff, considered the notion to be nothing more than ‘the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.’ The twentieth century French philosopher, Michel Foucault, judged the triumph of ruling elites to be the way in which they convinced populations that their power was part of the natural order of things – ‘common sense’. Goodness knows what either of these two towering intellects would make of something called …..and I promise I’m not making this up….the relatively newly formed clique of MPs who dub themselves The Common Sense Group. Get yourself a cup of tea, google them and cheer yourself up.

The group’s chairman (no gender neutrality here, thank you very much) is the Right Honourable Sir John Hayes CBE MP. He’s had a busy old week. The acquittal of the four people accused of criminal damage for destroying and dunking the statue of the Bristol slaver, Edward Colston, is precisely the sort of episode he and his buddies live for. He had two objections. First, the trial should never have been held in Bristol (er, where the statue was?) because of ‘the rhetoric surrounding the trial.’ Second, the jury was just too dim to understand what was going on. They were, according to Sir John, ‘certainly devoid of the understanding of the definition of criminal damage.’ Who could he be talking about? Ordinary members of the British public who ingest common sense with their mothers’ milk?

The guiding principles of The Common Sense Group, set out on the title page of their website (and adorned by a photograph of good Sir John that can’t possibly have been the best from the photo-shoot) boldly claim to address the problems created by ‘subversives fuelled by ignorance and an arrogant determination to erase the past and dictate the future.’ It’s worth re-reading that comment and thinking carefully about erasing pasts and dictating futures.  The topplers of Colston the human-trafficker weren’t erasing the past – they were doing the exact opposite. They were exposing it in all the vile, gory detail that has been dressed up and excused for centuries as acts of benevolence and public enterprise.

For brave Sir John and his stout band of British yeomen, the Colston Four and all those who joined with them on that joyful day, represent a world turned inside out. ‘What society have we become when wanton vandalism is excused under an umbrella of ‘woke’ as the right thing to do?’ squeaked the Daily Express, next to a picture of Miley Cyrus’s bottom, just to add extra gravitas to its concerns. Well, that’s a pretty easy one.

It’s the sort of world where people going about their daily business do not have to be affronted by a reverential tribute to someone whose wealth was acquired from the infliction of unthinkable brutality on his fellow human beings. It’s the sort of world where people feel able to challenge feeble moral equivalence that asks us to balance such despicable behaviour against some compensatory acts of charity. It’s the sort of world where the actions of those who are prepared to speak out about injustice will force those in authority to think twice about who they choose to publicly venerate   – that is until the proposed Police Bill rips to pieces the right to such protest.

And it’s the sort of world where the twelve Bristolians whose turn it was to do their civic duty, listened to the arguments, weighed the evidence, pondered the advice and decided that throwing an effigy of a villain into a river was not a criminal act. By doing so, they demonstrated, as juries composed of ordinary people so often do, that their values and principles allow them to see through the bluster and bunkum of those who persist with feebly excusing the inexcusable in the name of tradition.

And if common sense does exist, I’d call that as good an example as any.

My new book, Brutish Necessity, which tells the forgotten story of the last man hanged in Birmingham, 20-year-old Jamaican Oswald Grey, will be out later this year (and this one isn’t about football at all)

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