On the 6th of July 2021, the health secretary, Sajid Javid, announced that the UK had entered a ‘new chapter’ of the COVID-19 pandemic ‘based on the foundations of personal responsibility and common sense.’ Despite claiming to turn a page, his message is a familiar one; common sense and personal responsibility have been frequent themes in government rhetoric on public behaviour during COVID-19, particularly at moments where strict quarantine measures have been rolled back. This ‘new chapter’, mentioned by Javid, is one that the UK government had already tried to open in the spring/summer of 2020, before politically intolerable rates of infection and death forced the government to again take matters out of public hands. For a while at least, common sense and common health seemed irreconcilable. At least until the gains made by mass vaccination allowed the discourse to resurface.
It may be useful, therefore, to return not just to questions about what common sense is, where it comes from, and how it works, but to reflect on a previous ‘chapter’ of the pandemic defined by the idea. This chapter was inaugurated in May 2020, with Boris Johnson’s well-known and much-criticised encouragement to ‘apply good, solid, British common sense’ in a speech accompanying broader changes in guidance from ‘stay home’ to ‘stay alert.’ At a moment where expected behaviour was particularly unclear, Johnson invited the public to apply the nebulous and subjective principles of common sense not just in their own decision-making, but to the actions of relatives, friends, neighbours, acquaintances, colleagues, and strangers. This emphasis on personal responsibility – made explicit by Javid in 2021 – closely followed the logics of what Stuart Hall and Alan O’Shea have described as the structural consequences of neoliberal common sense: ‘the individualisation of everyone, the privatisation of public troubles and the requirement to make competitive choices at every turn’ (Hall & O’Shea 2013).
How did political rhetoric around common sense shape public emotions, opinions, and experiences of the pandemic? Using written testimony to record the details of everyday life during COVID-19, the Mass Observation Archive offers an exceptionally rich resource to address this question. Responses from the spring and summer of 2020 show participants invoking or contesting ‘common sense’ as a technology of individual and collective survival, and navigating difficult experiences of guilt, blame, and shame.
For respondents who were already broadly critical of the government, ‘stay alert’ and ‘good British common sense’ felt like a ‘dangerous blame game’, a means to ‘blame the public for any problems’, or, in a different formulation, of ‘blaming others for failures.’ Others were less critical of intention but sceptical of common sense as a public health response, and anxious about the consequences. Presciently, one 70-year-old former secretary observed that the UK had entered a ‘dangerous situation where eventually the public was just told to “use your common sense.” This, I am sure, will lead to a further spike in the numbers of positive tests and deaths when presumably everything will be locked down again.’ Another Mass Observer posed the problem as follows: ‘Boris Johnson seems to be telling us to use our common sense, but common sense varies from one person to another and means completely different things and behaviour, and we really can’t be trusted at the moment to get it right.’
In other Mass Observation testimonies, common sense was a straightforward and meaningful resource, a practical set of principles about how the world works which was made use of (usually by the writer), or ignored (usually by the subject of the writer’s judgement, ire, or scorn). Some respondents broadly accepted the government’s individualisation of blame, complaining that ‘it has taken a while for everyone to apply common sense’, or asserting that ‘people should take responsibility for themselves and have some common sense.’
While common sense is usually defined as a collective social and cultural achievement, its absence or lack is understood as a personal failing, and a potential source of shame. Mass Observers reported acute experiences of shame, instances where they felt hyper-visible and vulnerable to the judgement of others, and where their common sense was publicly at stake; they also detailed scenarios in which they had caused others to feel shame.
A renewed rhetorical reliance on common sense heightens the already considerable burden of pandemic shame, encouraging informal systems of vigilance, surveillance, and recrimination. As a supposedly homogenising idea, common sense is predictably divisive, raising the stakes on matters of particular cultural and political tension.
Applying common sense to each other’s actions erases the complex histories and contexts which frame and condition behaviour, knowledge, and ‘choice’, privileging a shaming accountability to a conceptual phantom which is frequently incompatible with the lived realities of inequality, poverty, or suffering, and which fails to reckon with other kinds of survival made necessary by a structural inattention to the emotional and relational consequences of the virus. In a pandemic where common sense serves a particular political purpose in the deflection of shame, the sites where it continues to land serve as yet another marker of unnecessary estrangement and pain.
Fred Cooper – Co-Investigator on the Scenes of Shame and Stigma in COVID-19 Project, Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health, University of Exeter.
Roy Coleman and Beka Mullin-McCandlish, ‘The Harms of State, Free-Market Common Sense and COVID-19’, State Crime Journal, vol. 10, no. 1 (2021), 170–88: https://doi.org/10.13169/statecrime.10.1.0170
Samuel Earle, ‘Against Common Sense’ (LRB blog, 19th July 2021): https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2021/july/against-common-sense
Stuart Hall and Alan O’Shea, ‘Common-sense neoliberalism’, Soundings: A journal of politics and culture, Issue 55 (2013), 8-24: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/531183/pdf
Stanley Rosen, ‘Common Sense’, The Journal of General Education, vol. 18, no. 2 (1966), 112–36, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27796019
Anna Wierzbicka, Experience, Evidence, and Sense: The Hidden Cultural Legacy of English (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010): https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195368000.001.0001/acprof-9780195368000