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The Handling of Mistakes.

We all make mistakes, small ones, big ones, some that are easily fixed and some that haunt us for ages. (Sometimes small, easily fixed ones can still be of the haunting sort, though.) Mistakes are not nice to make, but they are a part of life, and every one of them is an opportunity to learn, and do better next time.

Mistakes are also an opportunity to think things over, and maybe alter them to the better. There’s no such thing as a perfect script, as any writer knows… finding mistakes and editing them is a process that makes the final manuscript a much better piece, since there will inevitably be stuff that is not a real proper mistake, but can do with some change for the better anyways.

You don’t want to know how many typos we found in the Beast in the final big edit.
Trust me. You don’t.

But does that mean every mistake should remain visible? That is the suggestion of Guy Claxton, who says erasers are an instrument of the devil and should be banned from classrooms (all quotes in the following are from this article). Because, and now comes the point that makes me groan,

…schools should encourage students to acknowledge their mistakes because that’s the way the “big wide world” works…

Erm, excuse me? Mister Claxton, what planet are you living on, and how can I get there? The last time I looked around in the “big wide world” that I am currently living in, mistakes are not acknowledged, oh no. They are brushed over, or hushed up, or even rewarded with a hefty chunk of severance pay. When was the last time you heard a politician declare openly and publicly that he or she had fucked up, made a serious mistake, is very sorry and then actually did something to remedy the error? Or when did they obviously learn from a mistake?

There’s massive protest against TTIP and CETA (go sign the protest if you have not yet done so, please); but do the politicians admit that it might have been a mistake? Nope – they are still trying to push it through. There’s bees dying everywhere because of new pesticides, but does that lead to a ban on these chemicals? Ah no.

Don’t even get me started on the EU VAT stuff. 2015 is half gone, the Digital VAT has proven to be a huge problem for small traders, many of which have closed their doors, but what is happening? Very very little, and very very slowly – and the plans to extend the new rules to all goods in 2016 still persist. (Please sign the petition if you have not yet done so, and spread the word so that others sign it, too. It’s not looking good for small businesses at the moment, and that does include my own business.)

Do I need to go on? I don’t think so. If we have a culture of standing up and admitting your own mistakes, and then openly correcting them and trying not to make a similar mistake in the future, I think it is hiding very, very well in this “big wide world” of ours. At least it’s not the culture that our captains of industry, politicians and magnates are steeped in.

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, professor Claxton said: “The eraser is an instrument of the devil because it perpetuates a culture of shame about error. It’s a way of lying to the world, which says ‘I didn’t make a mistake. I got it right first time.’ That’s what happens when you can rub it out and replace it.

Being able to fix your mistakes and make things better is not something, in my experience, that perpetuates shame about the error. On the contrary – I’d be much more ashamed about something that has to stand visibly for everybody to see. I do know that many of my colleagues feel the same about visible errors in their craftwork. If it can be fixed without trace, it should be okay to fix without trace; often enough, that is not the case anyway, because there will remain a reminder of the error that is at least visible to the person who made the thing. Life is hard enough without having to live with all your little mistakes visible to the world, too.

If you are not tired of reading about this topic yet, hop over to Another Damned Medievalist’s blog, whose post in reply to the piece about erasers was the reason for this whole post. (I really just wanted to write a few words before linking to her, but then I got off on a tangent.) ADM’s looking at the eraser-is-the-devil thing from a different angle and takes it apart with a little historical knowledge. (To whoever groused her at Leeds to blog more again: thank you!)

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2 Responses to The Handling of Mistakes.

  1. Anonymous says:

    It made me wonder about overlap between erasing mistakes and the google right to be forgotten. In amongst the arguments about people being able to hide serious mistakes of their past, for good or bad (and whether someone thinks of the act or the being found out as the mistake), there is also the loss of the ability to change your mind. Whereas in the past the new view and its reasoning would be more prominent than the older view, now a search engine can bring them up with equal prominence, with or without reasoning. That would confuse the issue and perpetuate old 'mistakes'.

  2. Harma says:

    There is this weird old fashioned Dutch habit to hang tiles with some rhymed aphorisms or sayings in the house, often in the bathroom. At an old workplace of mine, one hung that I never forgot. Translated it would have said something like who doesn't make mistakes, mostly makes nothing.

    Erasers and mistakes are both useful in a learning process, but not required to show in the end result. They are a distraction that influence the readers perception of information, even after a writer became aware that a different approach would improve his writing. So, make glorious mistakes, but erase them after learning from them.

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