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Society, Politics & Law

Left behind?

Updated Wednesday, 1st August 2018

Dick Skellington reflects on being left-handed in a right-handed world.

A cartoon of famous left-handed characters and figures including Napoleon, Bart Simpson and Garfield. Creative commons image Icon Gary Edwards under Creative-Commons license

What do Leonardo Da Vinci, Toulouse Lautrec, Robert De Niro, Marilyn Monroe, Nicole Kidman, Lewis Carroll, Bart Simpson, Harpo Marx, Spike Lee, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney, Uri Geller, Albert Einstein, Napoleon Bonaparte, Aristotle, Marie Curie, Joan of Arc, Winston Churchill, Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince William, Bobby Charlton, Pele, Diego Maradona, and Martina Navratilova got in common?

Not got it yet? How about David Gower and John McEnroe? Remember their elegant cricket and tennis shots? No? Well, they are all left-handers.

It is quite a list of the great and the good in all walks of life, contemporary and historical. I could have added Bill Clinton, Abraham Lincoln, David Cameron - though, for some, he may be an exception to the great and good rule - Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Holbein, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, Bill Gates (more of him later), and another cartoon hero, Garfield the Cat.

My twin sister was a left-hander. I will never forget how she wrapped her thumb around a fountain pen and tore up the paper at school. It took years for her to struggle through. This was half a century ago when the teaching establishment was less forgiving of quite a common human characteristic.

Did you know women are more likely to be born right-handed than men (about 4 per cent)? Or that over one in ten of the world's population is left-handed (one per cent are ambidextrous)?

Left-handers remain trapped in a right-handed world. The disadvantages are so acute that in 1996 someone decided we needed to have a day for left-handedness. It is August 13th and while the day is meant to highlight the plight of left-handed people, just having one day to think about it and forget the problems for the rest of the year seems, well, still the norm. Our world is designed for right-handed people. If you are left-handed you just have to fit in.

Back in ancient history left-handedness was seen as a mark of the devil (in ancient illustrations the devil is depicted left-handed), an indicator of criminality and deviance, low intelligence, mental ill health, and even homosexuality.

Despite the ten per cent statistic, a recent event reminded me of how left-handedness is still something we struggle to live with.

Just look at the latest Apple watch launched in September 2014. After the launch, Apple was inundated with thousands of complaints from left-handed people saying the watch was designed for right-handed people. I am sure Bill Gates at Microsoft (see famous left-handers above) would not have made the same public relations gaffe. Yes, Apple later said their watch could be adapted for left-handed people, but everyone wearing one at the launch was, yep, you got it, right-handed!

Think about the everyday items that are designed for right-handers. The list is endless. If you are a wine lover, for example, best to buy screw-top bottles because corkscrews are made for right-handers. Guitars are made for right -handers (though Hendrix and McCartney got over it), and can openers. So how come left-handed people appear to be more prone to alcholism?

The word 'left' in English comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lyft, which means weak or broken. The Oxford English Dictionary defines left-handed to mean crippled, defective, awkward, clumsy, inept, characterised by underhanded dealings, ambiguous, doubtful, questionable, ill-omened, inauspicious, and illegitimate.

In Latin the word meaning 'left' is sinister. There is a useful website which lists 56 'facts' about left-handed people. According to the facts listed there you are more likely to have allergies, migraines, suffer from insomnia, be an alcoholic, stutter, be dyslexic, live nine years less on average than right-handed people. On the positive side, a left-hander has a better multi-tasking capability, and possess a greater three dimensional thinking ability. You might also recover from strokes quicker than right-handed people, be more likely to pursue a creative career (just look at the list in the first paragraph!), and if you are an American left-handed graduate, 26 per cent more likely to be rich than right-handed American graduates.

I am sure, like a lot of right-handers, even me, we take the right-handed nature of our world for granted most of the time. I hope this post makes you think a little of left-handed people and their struggle to coexist alongside us, largely in a world designed for our benefit, not theirs.

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
Want to know more about studying social sciences with The Open University? Visit the Social Sciences faculty site.

Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.





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