I work in a casual tech setting and I’m shocked by how much everyone swears. Should I say something?
Imagine what it was like to be a Puritan in 1642. You’ve come to America. The landscape is crude and endless; the soundtrack, all hissing insects and howling wolves. “Everything about the place seemed godforsaken,” writes the natural historian Tim Flannery in his book The Eternal Frontier. That lawless emptiness is why you’re here—it means freedom. But in all free and empty places, there’s also room for wickedness to grow. Everybody in your little settlement is aware of this, which is why they panic when, one day, someone happens upon a young man named Thomas Granger having sex with a horse.
It’s worse than you thought: When confronted, Granger rapidly admits he’s also had intercourse with three cows, two goats, five sheep, and a turkey. This behavior is so savage—and feels like such a threat to the ethical society you’re laboring to build there in the wild—that you respond with a campaign of ruthless cleansing. You round up each animal Granger has had sex with and force the young man to watch while you slaughter it. (Not the turkey, though; for some reason, Flannery notes, no one bothers with the turkey.) And since you can’t tell which of the village’s sheep were the particular sheep Granger penetrated—his descriptions are imprecise—you herd every sheep in front of him, like a police lineup, and force him to ID the five in question. Then you kill those five sheep too. Then you kill Granger. Then you throw all their bodies together in one big pit.
Now, fast-forward 373 years. Let’s talk about you.
It’s easy to imagine you, hunched in your tech company’s open floor plan, forced to sit on an inflatable ball or perhaps issued one of those iconoclastic standing desks without a chair at all. You are a wary pilgrim on the wild, godless edge of America’s economic frontier. And, as such, you understand that the foul language your colleagues are using isn’t just unpleasant but morally precarious; if it continues unchecked, it could lead you all—your entire industry, really—to much darker places. You know, just as the Puritans did, that this kind of impropriety needs to be nipped in the bud.
That’s how you feel, right? Well, you’re wrong.
You’re not the Puritans. You’re the kid shtupping the cows. Because the lesson of the Granger story—as I read it—isn’t that morality always wins. It’s that the mob always wins. The majority’s norms always beat back and outlast the minority’s. And the mob can be cruel: They’ll kill the thing you love right in front of you, then dump you in the ground.
I think you need to go along with the mob.
Does it matter if my kid’s handwriting is terrible?
Well, I happen to love handwriting. I think it’s curiously fun to look at and a considerable, if mostly esoteric, value-add to the written language—even in an era of tablets and smartwatches and speech-recognition software. But does it matter if your child writes illegibly? My answer is no, probably not. Handwriting is an old technology—about 5,000 years old. And as with newer old technologies (muskets or floppy disks or cars with human beings driving them), some people may inevitably feel a tinge of melancholy watching it sputter into oblivion. And yet the truth is that humanity has always replaced old tools with new ones, and often, once we’ve pushed through the emotionally charged transitional phase and come out the other end, everything feels fine again.
Take, for example, a woman named Kristin Gulick in Bend, Oregon, who often has trouble reading messages scribbled by her chronically illegible office receptionist. “Yesterday I tried to dial a number that she’d written down, and I couldn’t read it,” Gulick told me recently. “I had to go back out and ask, ‘What does this say?’” And the receptionist was just like, ha ha ha, I know my handwriting’s terrible—you know, giggling the annoyance away. Was Gulick peeved? Yes. But was this a fireable offense or some irrevocable inconvenience? Not even close. In fact, Gulick really had no choice but to laugh the whole thing off too. “Thank God she’s good at other things!” she said, and life went on.
So there’s your answer. But who is Kristin Gulick, anyway? So glad you asked!
Handwriting may be one of those fundamentally human abilities—one that binds us to our own identities.
Gulick has been an occupational therapist for 28 years, specializing in arms and hands. She’s in private practice now, but shortly after 9/11 she found herself working at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. A recent government report disclosed that more than 1,000 of the 50,000 soldiers who’ve been wounded in action in Iraq and Afghanistan—2.6 percent—have come back missing limbs, and Gulick was there to greet some of the first ones, helping them work around their loss and rejoin their life. Part of this work involved “transferring dominance” from one hand to the other; if a righty lost their right arm, say, they needed to learn to be a lefty now. And part of that was relearning handwriting—even just enough to fill out the deluge of hospital forms and sign their name.
Gulick found a total dearth of tools and curricula. Really, there was nothing. While she encouraged people to use first-grade handwriting primers early in her career, they were full of infantilizing penmanship exercises involving anthropomorphic animals. These books were not only unhelpful but degrading: Having lost a limb, many of these people were already feeling vulnerable and diminished. Now they were being treated—literally—like children. Gulick and an officer in the Army Medical Specialist Corps, Katie Yancosek, decided they could do better. “We’d give them exercises about balancing their checkbook and not about a little bunny or whatever,” Gulick said. The result was a six-week program, laid out in a workbook called Handwriting for Heroes. (The third edition was published this year.)
Look, I don’t mean to play some righteous, wounded-veteran card and make anyone feel bad. But I think we all see where this is going: It’s easy to write off handwriting only because most of us take it for granted. But I listened to Gulick talk about handwriting for a while, about what the ability to jot off a simple grocery list or be-right-back note for your spouse—functional but maybe also aesthetically pleasing or expressive, something you have created—does for a person’s sense of self-sufficiency and pride after working hard to regain that skill. How handwriting, really, may be one of those fundamentally human abilities—one that binds us, in a tiny way, to each other and to our own identities.
Your child won’t feel anything remotely like that sense of loss if they let their handwriting go to seed. Their lives will move forward in standardized fonts. If they absolutely have to write anything by hand, it may be disordered and illegible, but they can just laugh it off and explain (or text) what they meant. And that’s why I’ll stick with my first answer: It probably doesn’t matter. But I also think that, if we’re prepared to let handwriting go—to not care how ugly it gets—we should, at least, take a second to think about how beautiful it can be.
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