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OP-ED: The hegemony of the right-handed

  • Published at 12:45 am August 17th, 2021
left hand

Left-handedness is alright

A movie was running at some arbitrarily odd hour of the working day, yet another example of the mindless fare that viewers subject themselves to as the predictable brutality is devoured, frame by frame. Then, without warning, the camera halted before an aquiline and bearded profile who, while bowing his turbaned head before the grizzled figure seated before him, proffered a gift as a token of his fealty. 

At which point I cringed, and my senses focused to a pinpoint of disbelief. For our warlord, who on the map of the world was presumably perched on the same latitude of temperament, sensibilities, and culture as we oversensitive citizens of the subcontinent, had just extended a condescending arm and accepted the tribute with his left hand.

My reaction would have been comical had it not been so typical, a tragedy compounded by the knowledge that the reaction would have been replicated by the force of the convention that holds any of several billions who occupy the crust of our world in its thrall. The reaction was instinctive, ingrained, and schooled, and represented the cumulative outcome of the prejudices and prohibitions that cram the mind from swaddling childhood. 

If you are a member of the fraternity of the right-handed, who constitute the brute majority of humankind and account for 90% of its population, then you take huge swathes of your existence for granted, and if you pause to shake off the routine of the robot to consider, you will realize that life is, indeed, crafted from the waking moment for the convenience of the right-handed.

“Sir, you have no idea how difficult it is to be a left-hander. Right from shaking hands to waving to writing to managing the cutlery. It’s a whole new life to learn.” The outburst may be attributed to a colleague, southpaw by birth and overly ambidextrous by compulsion, with no option but to lead his life according to the dictates of the other-handed. 

Let us seek to build some colour and context around this plaintive cry.

If I am described as “gauche” in the English language, you accuse me of being rustic and rough around the edges. Yes, but “la gauche” is the expression for “left” in the French language. If I am “adroit,” you compliment me on my skill and cleverness, but if I am inefficient, inept, and clumsy, then you sneer at me for being “maladroit.” 

All very interesting in itself, except that the word for “right” in the queen of the romance tongues is “droit” or “droite.” So, therefore, by extension and implication, is to be incompetent and a nincompoop akin to being “governed by the left hand?” 

And to dip into Latin, if I am dexterous, as drawn from the root word “dexter,” I display a certain level of skill, especially with the hands. And as everyone knows, if something connotes evil or danger, then it is of course “sinister”. Only that “dexter” and “sinister” stand for “right” and “left,” respectively. In the march of civilization, we have ample cause to question and contest the influences of majoritarianism and hegemony brought to bear by the visceral need of one human being to dominate another. However, no philosophy, way of life, and mesh of taboo and belief has been more insidious, more successful, and more complete in the goal of subjugation of a prominent minority than in the demonization and marginalization of the left-handed.

Our life is governed by the Roman script, negotiated from left to right. Cast your mind back to the classroom and the sprinkling of southpaws who amused with their desk-top acrobatics while trying to keep up with the rest of their classmates in an exercise of speed dictation. 

That their hands were more likely to get smudged with ink, as they frantically wrote while at the same time taking evasive tactics to ensure that the words didn’t get obliterated while constructing the sentence, was in itself a significant feat. 

But is this a malaise of the Greco-Roman tradition only? Unfortunately, it is more pervasive. In the exquisite culture represented by the Japanese nation, much emphasis is placed upon good handwriting and calligraphy, and interviewees are expected to hand-write their resumes. All three scripts require a harmony and balance of stroke order and proportion, and certain strokes are apparently better executed by the natural right-hander. Certain characters look incorrect when written by a left-hander, and special tutorials and classes are organized for these hapless individuals to help them overcome their “disadvantages.”

We presume taboo and ignorant superstition to be the monopoly of Asian cultures and the “Third World.” Not true. Ask any European of a generation ago, and they will tell you horror stories of how they were compelled to learn to write with the weaker hand on pain of being further marginalized in academia. Gratifyingly, in the classroom of today, the natural left-hander is spotted with increasing frequency as belief and superstition are shed and the inherent skills of the child are optimized.

Consider a microscopic representation of those who have scaled great heights. Leonardo da Vinci, born to question, trenchantly left-handed while committing in writing his native Italian in mirror image. Napoleon Bonaparte, military genius, who required his armies to march on the right so he could keep his sword arm between him and the advancing enemy. 

Amitabh Bachchan, superstar extraordinaire, who reigns supreme over the firmament of North Indian cinema, tall and long-limbed and, yes, purely left-handed. The most successful tele-evangelist of culinary perfection, Gordon Ramsey -- him too. Consider the slew of southpaws who occupied the White House over the last 40 years, and Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama immediately come to mind. So you thought Sachin Tendulkar is right-handed just because he wields the bat and bowls the ball accordingly, correct? Fooled you! Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg constitute the first triumvirate of Corporate America who wrote the blueprint for the hyper market capitalization of the age of computers, and all this and more with the left hand.

More than any transformation in personal culture, consideration, and human initiative, it is the word processor contained in the keyboard which is the great leveler, the great democratizer. Roman, Kanji, Pinyin, and the masterful flourishes of these grand ways of writing are reduced to a tap of the key of a pre-programmed computer and are measured now not by the elegance and beauty of the handwritten report but by the dexterity and speed with which the user masters the keyboard. 

And for the person schooled in the Roman alphabet and communicating in the English language, I note that the majority of letters must be negotiated with that pesky left hand. A new day has indeed dawned for the left-handed.

In the aftermath of International Left Handers’ Day celebrated on August 13, let us recognize and celebrate the opportunities that confront us, with increasingly regularity, in our quest for a more equitable world.

Sumit Basu is a freelance contributor based in India.

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