25 February 2012

We learn much folk wisdom – some couched in semi-superstition – either from other people or simply from experience.

I USED to muse that there seems, these days, to be a lack of common sense, the wisdom that comes from basic knowledge and experience. Everyone seems to be more interested in fantasising about imaginary things or providing far-out solutions when simpler ones may do.

People in leadership positions seem to have the least common sense of all, probably because they think people expect something different from them instead of the obvious.

I am reminded of this more and more lately. People are so obsessed with getting from A to Z that they skip over B and C and don’t realise that the wisest outcome is in fact D.

So we get, for example, people who think the ultimate goal is to bring out a website in English but who forget that in order to do that, one needs to first find someone competent in English to do it.

Or who, without checking a simple encyclopedia, wish the wrong people greetings for a religious festival. All it takes is some care and common sense.

There are of course worse examples. Sometimes it makes better sense to say nothing than to open one’s mouth and disclose that one’s head is full of rubbish. It can be jaw-droppingly embarrassing for all observers, if not for the one speaking.

Sometimes we can’t blame those laying out such nonsense. Common sense comes from having some basic knowledge handed down from teachers and guides, as well as lived experiences and just plain intelligence.

Getting websites so excruciatingly mistranslated or sending out wrongly targeted tweets is not so much the fault of whoever wrote them but whoever supervises them.

If supervisors and leaders have not had the sense to lay down some basic rules and procedures, then it’s not surprising that such faux pas happens.

I recently had a request for an interview for a student research project. Reading their proposed project, I was appalled by the entire premise of their topic, one so nonsensical that had it been a foreign university, they would have been laughed out of their room.

But then I realised that it’s not the students’ fault. Such a research proposal should really not have passed by their supervising faculty at all.

Their lecturer should have questioned them much more, made them read more background material to come up with something that made better sense.

Then I had the awful realisation that maybe the lecturer, too, thought it was a topic worth researching.

In our lifetime we learn much folk wisdom either from other people or simply from experience. Some are couched in semi-superstition.

Our mothers would tell us not to cut our fingernails at dusk. It may have sounded a bit mystical but the real lesson was that if we cut them at a time when the light was bad, the chances are we’re likely to cut ourselves.

Or we would be told to close our mouths with our hands when we yawned so that the Devil would not enter our bodies, when in fact it was so that we would not rudely display our open mouths to other people.

When dealing with the public, simple psychology will often do. Nobody really likes to be berated all the time. Often gentle persuasion works better.

Most people have a certain innate sense of decency and justice, so will tend to take the side of the underdog. Thus wielding a stick too heavy-handedly over someone much weaker will only elicit sympathy for that person.

Being humble, even if suspect, usually wins over arrogance. Doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.

But repeatedly, all we see is the opposite of such common sense. Perhaps some people feel the need to be too clever, or assume that the audience must be simply too stupid.

This is the worst mistake of all. If there’s one of you and millions of them, chances are there are probably lots of people much smarter than you out there and they’ll outgun you with brains any time.

The trouble is, like those students, once there is no common sense at the top, the bottom takes the same cue and loses all ability to think clearly, too. Whatever is the prevailing logic on high, no matter how absurd, becomes everyone’s logic, too.

The illogic when unquestioned is accepted as gospel. Thus a talk becomes a seminar, a party becomes an orgy, a gathering a riot. The simple matter of supporting evidence is ignored.

Where on earth will this collective stupidity lead us?

Will it make us stand tall and proud as Malaysians, punching above our weight, as someone put it, all round the globe? Or will it make us increasingly isolated and provincial?

Or don’t we care?