Responsible thumb ownership: A modest proposal (Image via)
A couple of weeks ago, I was walking down Fifth Avenue around 33rd Street on the way to my office when suddenly I was knocked to the ground by a thirtysomething guy walking behind me. Predictably, he was busy texting instead of looking where he was going.
“Sorry,” said he.
“Sorry doesn’t cut it, Bub,” said I.
There was a time in my life when I would be gracious about inadvertent knockdowns, but this wasn’t the time—because this wasn’t inadvertent. Oh, sure, it was unintentional, unpremeditated, uncalculated, unwitting, unthinking. But as I said, that doesn’t cut it: Surely it’s not too much to expect people to calculate the effect of their heedlessness, to be mindful of this absent-mindedness, even to attribute their unwitting assaults to their own half-wittedness. In short, to think before it becomes necessary (or polite) to offer a perfunctory “Sorry.”
My guess is that knocking down this grouchy (I admit) old lady (I don’t) didn’t make him think, but it started me thinking about all the things that I, a lifelong New Yorker, find make me nuts about New York: people walking down the street texting or glued to their email; baby strollers (especially on the Upper West Side) nipping at your heels until you jump out of the way; bikes that fly at you from all directions.
And what makes all of these annoying/dangerous/deadly behaviors possible? Opposable thumbs! Yup, the very thing that separates human beings from other animals. The opposable thumb (aka the oppositional thumb) rotates, allowing us to touch (or oppose) the other fingertips of the same hand. This, in turn, gives us the ability to grasp objects of various sizes—from toothpicks to stroller handles to bicycle handlebars to open coffee cups on the bus—and to operate devices, like smartphones. Proof that our thumbs set us apart from other animals, even other primates? When was the last time you saw a great ape texting on an iPhone?
Yeah, yeah, I know, you can’t blame distracted walking (or driving) on opposable thumbs. To some extent this is true, since it’s not only opposable thumbs that set us apart from other animals, but also consciousness, awareness, the ability to foresee the consequences of our actions—and to care about them.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not calling for a ban on thumbs. I like to count on my fingers, zip my pants, button my blouse, tie my sneakers, and, yes, text on my iPhone (though not while walking or driving) as much as the next person. But I am opposed to the havoc that oppositional thumbs can wreak. Therefore, I am asking that you join my Oppositional Party, which calls for responsible thumb ownership. If you’re with me, touch your thumb to your forefinger and flash the A-OK sign. If you’re not, well, picture my thumb touching the tip of my nose with my other four fingers wiggling in the air. Because carelessness—and worse—is something we should all be thumbing our nose at.