Although common sense appears common, it is hardly common. Yet it is the basic element in running anything, countries included. Diplomatic Historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote in his book, ‘On grand strategy’ that common sense is like oxygen that diminishes as one rises to higher altitudes. In governance, people who climb into the socio-political stratosphere become dizzy with power.
When the socio-economic and political environments ignore common sense in favour of temporal might, society sinks deep into instability. When that happens, using common sense becomes an act of rebellion of the mind that questions the given. Questioning the given is a societal necessity, so argued Socrates the Athenian as he taught the youth to think. Unfortunately for Socrates, one of his best students, Plato, advocated the stunting of thinking with his “philosopher-king” prescription to governance. Since then, many tyrants, acquiring philosopher-king pretentions, have ravaged the world.
Long before the Socrates challenge to collective ‘robotic’ behaviour, Egyptian ruler Akhenaton had gone against tradition by trying to force religious conformity as a governing strategy. It made sense for him as ruler but it did not make sense to those who were negatively affected. Although it eventually backfired after his death, it had inspired the idea of using religion as an instrument of governance.
In turn, the enforced conformities generated their own rebellions of the mind that led to civil and socio-economic commotions. It happened in the Spanish Inquisition, in the religious reformations, in the establishment of empires, in the claims to the necessity of absolutism as governance ideology, and in the creation of colonial states in Africa. The common thread was that the ruler knows what is best and everyone in the entity had no business thinking because thinking was a monopoly of a few.
That elite attitude, that the right of thinking is limited to top leaders is detrimental to the leaders. It discloses a damaging sense of insecurity that is made worse by the tendency by leaders to surround themselves with two types of dangerous assistants or advisors who are either ‘robotic’ or are devious in their minds. The robotic have little value except to praise and entertain the ‘leader’ or to do some dirty work. The devious pretend to be supportive while waiting for opportunity to ditch and replace the leader. In that environment of intolerance, the use of common sense is forbidden; mostly done in the name of good leadership.
In itself, that elite attitude has repeatedly inspired the rise of assorted rebels of the mind because some of their demands make little sense to the affected. Since it did not make sense to the affected ‘natives’ in the colonial Kenya of the early 1920s, Harry Thuku arose to question the contradictions between colonial claims of benevolence and the reality of colonial atrocities. The British exiled him to Kismayu when it was part of Kenya before they donated it to Italy in 1925.
Post-colonial Kenya is still suffering from that ‘donation’. Within a decade, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia as a favour to Britain and France by eliminating the Ethiopian bad example to ‘natives’ in British and French colonial states. That imperial mentality was hogwash to anti-colonialists like Jomo Kenyatta who poked holes in colonial logic in his book, ‘Facing Mount Kenya’ and showed that official colonial mind made no sense to colonised Africans. He inspired the Mau Mau war that led to independence.
There were other times, post-colonial times, when the questioning of the prevailing official logic applied. It explains the ‘Second Liberation’ which discredited single party rule and forced change to multi-party politics. It was the attempt to force conformity against common sense that backfired and eroded legitimacy from officials to unelected players. In the process, it was officialdom that appeared not to use common sense despite claims to the opposite and to lose ground.
There are inherent dangers in attempting to force mind conformity. Progress occurs with freedom to think beyond the prescribed, and to question. When it fails, the absence of ‘common sense’ gives rise to rebels of the mind to force changes. Changes are not always positive but they appear commonsensical.
Prof Munene teaches history and international relations at USIU