Sinister as left-handed
Left-handedness was not always exclusively associated with wrongdoing; its characterization as “good” or “bad” shifted to correspond with dominant social mores.
The ancient Celts, for instance, associated the left with femininity — the source of all life — and thus worshipped the left side, treating it as sacred.
The Greeks presented men and women as opposite pairs, with men representing the right and women representing the left.
Creation myths of the time dictated that males were conceived when the father’s “seed” came from the right testicle, and that a female child would be born should the seed come from the left.
As Christianity spread, traits given to the left side would change in correspondence with its own founding myths.
As far back as the Zohar, a foundational text of Jewish mysticism,
Judeo-Christian religions attributed the left with femininity and inferiority, as Eve appeared on and developed from Adam’s left side.
Beyond weakness, Christianity also associated the left with immorality.
When attempting to explain the genesis of the left’s association with evil, many historians point to a passage in the Book of Matthew.
It writes that on the last Day of Judgment:
“He shall separate all nations one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats; and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left…then shall the king say unto them on his right hand, come, ye blessed of my father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Similar norms — right, good; left, bad — appear in Jewish writings.
When making sense of human nature, the Old Testament writes that humans have two impulses, called “yetzer.” Yetzer tov, an inclination toward good, appears on the right. Yetzer ra, an inclination toward wickedness, appears on the left.
The same sentiments regarding the relationship between sidedness and virtue have been documented in certain African and Middle Eastern cultures as well.
“It is a rule with the Muslims to honor the right hand above the left: to use the right hand for all honorable purposes, and the left for actions which, though necessary, are unclean.”
Given religion’s authoritative “truth telling” at the time, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that these associations yielded some very painful consequences for the populations whose affairs religion governed.
In the 19th century, for instance, French sociologist Robert Hertz noted that in his travels to southern Africa, Zulu tribes would pour boiling water into a hole and then place a child’s left hand into it, scalding the hand and preventing its use.
Before that, during the Spanish Inquisition, the Catholic Church would condemn — and occasionally execute — those who used their left hand.
Across the Atlantic during the time of the Salem Witch Trials, use of the left hand could lead to one’s burning at the stake.
As the centuries wore on and more “truth tellers” — specifically in the sciences — gained authority in governing public life, left-handedness became an object of scientific analysis and a recipient of medical treatment.
At the turn of the 20th century, Cesare Lombroso — often considered to be the father of criminology — looked to the left hand as an explanatory variable for certain less-than-desirable behaviors.
And as opposed to what appeared in religious texts, Lombroso used “science” to justify his thinking.
As “man advances in civilization and culture,” Lombroso wrote in 1903, “he shows an always greater right-sidedness as compared to…women and savage races, [who] even when they are not properly left-handed have certain gestures and movements which are a species of left-handedness.”
In handedness, Lombroso did not see the face of the devil but the result of biological abnormality. Lombroso opined that those who favored the brain’s right hemisphere — and thus wrote with the left hand — were “primitive” and abnormal.
Those who favored the left hemisphere and wrote with the right hand were more “civilized” and normal, and therefore less inclined to commit crime.
As Lombroso wrote, “In criminals and lunatics the right lobe predominates very much more often than in normal persons…while the healthy man thinks and feels with the left lobe, the abnormal, thinks, wills, and feels more with the right.”
Though Lombroso’s hypothesis on the behaviors of left-handed people would later be reduced to quack science, his thoughts resonated with others at the time, and lent themselves to racist and classist thinking.
As written in a 1913 edition of McClure’s Magazine, left-handedness is “slightly more common in the lower strata of society than in the higher, among negroes than among white persons, and among savages than the civilized races.”
Lest the left not symbolize all possible (and ostracized) Others, psychoanalysts soon came to see left-handedness as a sign of homosexuality and general sexual deviancy.
As Austrian physician and psychologist Wilhelm Stekel wrote in 1911, “The right-hand path always signifies the way to righteousness, the left-hand path the path to crime.
Thus the left may signify homosexuality, incest and perversion, while the right signifies marriage, relations with a prostitute, etc.”
In Berlin, psychoanalyst Wilhelm Fliess took his theories on left-handedness so far that he believed any not-so-feminine woman or not-so-masculine man would always be left-handed.
“Where a woman resembles a man, or a man resembles a woman, we find the emphasis on the left side of the body,” Fliess wrote. “Once we know this we have the diviner’s rod for the discovery of left-handedness. The diagnosis is always correct.”
These ideas were so far fetched that not even Sigmund Freud — himself no stranger to making outlandish claims — took them seriously. Freud criticized Stekel’s “lack of critical reflection and tendency to generalize at all costs.”
Responding to Fliess, Freud wrote simply, “I am still unable to accept your interpretation of left-handedness.”
Still, these associations — be they from the sciences or religious texts — compounded and found their ways into classrooms, where in some ways they remain today.
In the early 20th century, educators viewed left-handed students not as pupils, but as problems.
Some teachers resolved to retrain left-handed students to write with their right hands, in spite of the fact that stammering, dyslexia, and emotional distress could result from doing so.
This prompted a debate about how to respond to the left-handed “problem,” and renewed interest in ambidextral culture.
In 1914, for instance, when a teacher posed the question to The Teachermagazine, “Should the left-handed child be required to write with the right hand?”
she received a strong, mixed response.
Half said the student should be trained to use the right hand; others said that the child should be allowed to write with the left hand, but taught to do other things with the right hand as this is a “right-handed world.”
The century would continue to pass on, but theorization of lefties’ origins and fates did not.
In the ’70s, noted psychologist Theodore Blau would write that left-handed, “sinister” children were academically and behaviorally challenged, and disposed to diseases including schizophrenia. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Stanley Coren would note that left-handed people lived shorter, poorer lives, and that being left-handed was the result of “neurological insult or physical malfunctioning.”
In other words, after all these centuries, the left was still “wrong;” the 20th century merely allowed this supposed truth to be peddled as scientific fact.
While the jury is still out as to what exactly causes left-handedness — or if there is even a “cause” to be found — time has negated the validity of many historical explanations for it, and expectations of it.
And yet, in some places the linkages made by centuries of religious, scientific, and pedagogical thought persist.
In Taiwan, 60 percent of left-handed students studied were forced to convert to right-handedness, and that forced conversion was more likely among lower-income households than higher-income households.
Perhaps we will reach the apex of scholarship on left-handedness when we treat it for what it is: meaningless. No, left-handed people are not stammering thieves.
Nor are theycreative geniuses, as some experts have liked to deem lefties over the past couple decades. Rather, Smits says, they are simply people.
How did left-handedness transform from a symptom of mental and moral deficiency to a sign of creativity and mental fortitude?
Across time and place, left-handedness has been seen as everything from a sign of moral degeneracy to a symptom of neurological deformity to an illegal act.
Given the ubiquity of general wrongness that multiple disciplines have attributed to left-handedness, it’s in some ways surprising that today experts herald left-handedness as a sign of creativity and mental deftness.
So just what had to happen for a beating to become a “normal” response to a child’s use of the left hand — and how has this changed over time?