Why Right Is Right And Left Is Wrong: Historical Myths About Lefties
If you are one of the 10% of people who are left-handed, you probably have had a lot of frustration due to your left-handedness. As a child, you may remember bumping elbows with your desk-mate at school. Or worse, having a teacher who tried to force you to write with your right hand by making you sit on your left hand. As an adult, you found that common objects—scissors, cars, measuring cups, and the credit card pin pad at the grocery store—are designed for right-handed people. It is annoying and inconvenient, but it could be much worse. Consider how lefties were discriminated against throughout history.
Lefties in the ancient world
Favoring the right hand over the left seems to be an intrinsic and instinctual belief because it is so widespread across cultures. In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, for example, the two hands of their gods had opposing powers. A god’s right hand could bestow healing powers or provide a blessing, but the god’s left hand was used to cast a curse, destroy things, or cause harm. In images left behind by the ancient Egyptians, we can see that their enemies were often showed to be left-handed while the Egyptians were almost always using their right hands.
The anti-left Assyrians
Like most cultures, the ancient Assyrians believed that the right hand should be used for eating, as well as for performing ceremonial rites. They did not deviate from this, even for art’s sake. One interesting relief carving provides an example of this. It shows two figures that are mirror images of each other. The sculpture would be completely symmetrical, except for one detail. The artist broke the mirror-image by showing both figures using their right hands.
Bias in Ancient Greece
The people of ancient Greece, including such intellectuals as the philosophers Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato, associated the right hand with honesty, integrity, and goodness, while left-handedness with impurity, immoral and criminal behavior, and evil. The philosophers differed in their understanding of the root cause of left-handedness. Aristotle wrote that the person’s dominant hand was a natural manifestation of their inborn soul. If they were inherently good, they would naturally be right-handed, but if they were born evil, they would be lefties. Plato, however, thought that a baby was born with equal hands. A child would develop left-handedness as a result of bad parenting, over-indulging mothers, or inadequate schooling.
Alexander the Great: A leftie or a leftie-conqueror?
Many historians contend that Alexander the Great was a leftie. Of course, this is hard to prove but there is some textual evidence in which the great warrior extols the virtues of the left hand. There is, however, a fascinating story about Alexander the Great and lefties. Apparently, Alexander, who often journeyed to far away lands across the Middle East and into Asia, came upon an entire country of left-handed people. Alexander and his men easily defeated the country of lefties and slaughtered them all so that their evil left-handed ways would not spread. Although Alexander boasted of this conquest, there has been no evidence to prove the story is true.
All was right in Ancient Rome
The ancient Romans also favored the right hand. In fact, the practice of shaking hands upon greeting someone is a custom that began in ancient Rome. By extending one’s right hand, a person was showing that they did not have a hidden weapon in their hand. The ancient Romans also gave us the custom of wearing wedding rings on the left hand. This was done as a way to ward off the evil spirits that were connected to the left hand.
Lefties and the Medieval Church
The Catholic Church had some harsh beliefs about lefties in medieval times. Religious zealots took the evils of left-handedness a step further by proclaiming that lefties were in league with the devil. A woman could be arrested and charged with witchcraft simply because she was left-handed. The church did all it could to put a stop to the evil infliction of left-handedness, but it stopped short of the systematic extermination of lefties. Still, lefties were often accused of crimes, devil worship, and sorcery.
Lefties, scientific study, and criminal profiling
During the 19th century, there was a pseudo-scientific push to use a person’s physical traits to determine their internal qualities, such as intelligence, morality, and behavior. This was a time when people were believed to be criminals simply because their eyes were too close together or they had a specifically shaped skull. One physician and scientist, Cesare Lombroso applied this method to lefties and concluded that left-handed people were pathological criminals, psychopaths, and prone to anger and savagery. As a result, more and more youngsters were forced to deny their dominant hand and learn to write and do other tasks with their right hand.
Lefties in the education system
In the 19th and 20th centuries, teachers were instructed to train their left-handed students to be righties. They resorted to cruel and humiliating practices, such as tying down a student’s left hand, so he was forced to use his right and severely punishing or shaming a student caught using his left hand. Naturally, this had a detrimental impact on the students’ psyches and led to rebellion, fear, and anxiety. It is hard to believe, but this practice continued until the 1970s in the United States. Other countries were even harsher. In Spain and Italy at the time, right-handed writing was mandatory in schools. Left-handedness was illegal in Albania and lefties could be charged with a crime.
Although we have made strides to be a more inclusive society, there is still widespread discrimination against lefties today. Product designers often forget the 10% of the population that identifies as lefties when producing everyday items, thus making life as a leftie much more challenging. For example, the number pad on your computer keyboard is on the right side. So is the cup holder in your car. And let’s not even mention can openers and golf clubs. If you are a leftie, though, you are in good company. Among the world’s left-handed people are Barack Obama, Jimi Hendrix, Tim Tebow, Judy Garland, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Dan Aykroyd, Ty Cobb, Oprah Winfrey, Carol Burnett, Larry Byrd, and Whoopie Goldberg.