A new common sense for uncommon times
Hannah Arendt left us some clues.
“Just use common sense.” Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as evidenced by one of the most popular coronavirus tweets, this phrase has become both a rallying cry for public safety, and a weapon wielded against anyone ignoring best practices.
But seeking common sense in this mess can feel like trying to find footing in quicksand; what once seemed improbable—even impossible—has become daily life. Last Tuesday, kids were playing in playgrounds; today, those same playgrounds are cordoned off by police tape.
Seventy years ago, political theorist Hannah Arendt surveyed a world ravaged by fascim and anti-Semitism. In her 1953 essay about the dangers of totalitarianism, “Understanding and Politics,” she writes, “we are living in a topsy-turvy world, a world where we cannot find our way by abiding by the rules of what once was common sense.”
Arendt believed humans are capable of re-imagining our world, even when unmoored, but knew it would require dialogue and civic engagement. Although she wrote in a very different context, the similarities are striking. That might be why, through these uncommon times, many are calling for a new kind of common sense to emerge—one that values collective action, connection, and the common good.
We are living in a topsy-turvy world, a world where we cannot find our way by abiding by the rules of what once was common sense.
Taking care of one another
When asked what he’s been focusing on over the last two weeks, Mount Royal University (MRU) professor of sociology Tim Haney laughed: “Not what most people are paying attention to.” The media is full of reports about toilet paper, long lines at gun stores, and Lysol wipe profiteering, which he said is typical of disaster coverage.
“We tend to focus on the anti-social behaviour that happens during a crisis, and there is some,” said Haney, the former director of MRU’s Centre for Community Disaster Research. But what actually defines a crisis is “taking care of one another, and building what we call ‘social capital’—the social networks that bind us together.”
Sociologists often teach their students to ignore the outliers and focus on the probable, Haney says—but that logic is failing us right now. An outlier event, COVID-19 is rupturing all the regular ways people move through the world, leaving whole countries reeling. But in that, “there are opportunities for us to choose how to live; to choose what’s important to us, and to put our value systems on display,” Haney said.
There are opportunities for us to choose how to live; to choose what’s important to us.
Haney’s observations suggest that we should focus less on shaming others for their lack of common sense, and more on supporting a vision of the common good. Like quicksand, a helping hand can be the difference between life and death, as disaster research shows.
“You’re not going to get through events like this very well by approaching it like it’s a dog-eat-dog world,” Haney said.
Although people tend to focus on the nasty and brutish stories, we have much more to gain by looking for vulnerabilities and seeking common ways to overcome them.
The shortcomings in our public systems
Anna Greenwood-Lee was a priest in Toronto when SARS hit the city in 2003. She watched systems break down as community leaders scrambled to find suitable shelter for thousands of under-housed people. After recognizing the inadequacy of shelter bunk-beds and close-coupled mats, the city ended up putting those who needed isolation in hotel rooms.
“That was extremely expensive and extremely logistically complicated,” and showed “how short-sighted some of our public systems are.”
So Greenwood-Lee, now the rector of Calgary’s St. Laurence Anglican Church and board chair for the Calgary Alliance for the Common Good (CACG), advocates for proactive policies such as supported, transitional, and affordable housing.
This illness is primarily going to hurt those that are already vulnerable.
“This illness is primarily going to hurt those that are already vulnerable,” said Ryan Andersen, lead organizer of the CACG. “People who are elderly, who have health issues, people who are poor and have a high degree of stress that they live underneath.”
With 36,000 members across the city, the CAGC is trying to restructure its community organizing to take place remotely—no easy feat. But their vision and skills are needed now more than ever, as COVID-19 tests the strength of our social structures.
“We have to choose as a community how we’re going to respond,” said Andersen, who is working long hours to consult with community partners. “We might need some form of guaranteed income, especially at this time, and to ensure nobody gets evicted or foreclosed on.”
While organizations like the CACG are strengthening social capital on the macro level, something that Arendt would have seen as compassion rightly elevated to the public sphere, COVID-19 has also produced countless acts of connection by individuals as well.
We really need to come together and accept each other’s experiences and be willing to listen to each other.
Roshni McCartney has been holding a “Virtual Tea Party” for anyone needing to connect during this time. She started the group on March 17 and hosts it on the voice and chat platform Discord.
Although she was planning to keep the group running only until the end of March, McCartney says she might keep it going for as long as people are interested. McCartney hosts an official “check-in” at 8 p.m. every day, but people are free to drop in and post at any time.
“We all need community,” said Roshni, an undergrad student in social innovation at MRU and advocate for Calgary’s arts community. Drawing on similarities between this pandemic and the response to the 2013 Calgary flood, she said, “we really need to come together and accept each other’s experiences and be willing to listen to each other.”
Working for the common good—not only in crisis
It seems like everyone has a story about finding connection in places where they’ve never seen it before; communities across Alberta have created volunteer and “caremongering” Facebook groups, landlords are offering their vacant spaces to those in need, and everyone’s chipping in to offer online kids’ programming.
These spontaneous acts are crucial in emergencies, but Tim Haney emphasizes that efforts to enhance social capital must also be sustainable in the long-run. Unfortunately, he says, this crisis has occured at a particularly bad time in this regard.
Haney worries about recent cuts to Alberta’s health, education, and social services, and called this a “gut-check”: robust public services are essential. “This is true during normal times and it's true during disaster times. Disasters enhance the need, but they don’t fundamentally radically alter it—they just expose needs that were already there in our community.”
We need to be working in the good times for the common good, not just in a pandemic or a panic situation…
This is a reminder that “terrible things can happen to any of us at any given time,” said Greenwood-Lee. “We need to be working in the good times for the common good, not just in a pandemic or a panic situation… A pandemic doesn’t really care about status or wealth.”
Recalling that old joke about everyone being a socialist after a disaster, Haney said he’s already hearing calls for more progressive policies from all sides of the political spectrum. Similarly, Greenwood-Lee and Andersen see the space we’re in right now as one beyond partisan politics, as the CAGC listens to community needs.
Like Roshni McCartney, many are turning their ideas into action with whatever means they have available; McCartney points out that her virtual tea parties are as much for others as they are for her. “It’s really lonely right now,” she said. “We all need community.”
In a world turned upside down by totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt believed that people need more than just common sense to rise above the disorientation. In her 1953 essay, she encourages citizens to imagine a new way of living, and then to elevate that vision to action. “Without this kind of imagination,” she writes, “we would never be able to take our bearings in the world. It is the only inner compass we have.”
Brianna Sharpe is a freelance journalist covering gender/sexuality, parenting, the environment and more. She lives on a mini-acreage in the Alberta foothills with her family.
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