The Strange History of Society’s View of Left-Handed People

left-handed people

In honor of International Left-Handers Day on August 13, here’s a look at how left-handed people have been treated throughout history.

When I was five, the lead librarian repeatedly removed my crayon from my left hand and placed it in my right. I was miffed and a little confused. How’s a girl expected to color with the “wrong” hand? She nervously approached my mom at the end of the day and said, “I think there’s something wrong with Caitlin.” My mom laughed it off and explained that I was left-handed. My problem was solved and I was allowed to color in peace — but little did I know that, if I’d been born not too long before I was, I may have been in for a rough future.

Approximately 10% of the world population is left-handed, and left-handedness remains a source of interest among scientists, sociologists and historians. Based on research, the percentage has remained consistent over the years: examinations of cave paintings and archaeological analyses of ancient artifacts indicate the number has always hovered around one in ten. So, despite people’s best efforts, left-handers haven’t been killed off and their numbers haven’t dwindled.

Now that we’re free to use our left hands without risk of being shunned by society, the only downsides to being left-handed are that tools and gadgets aren’t designed with us in mind.

Interestingly, a number of recent presidents are left-handed, including George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

left-handed people

President George H.W. Bush signs the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday extension bill at the White House as Coretta Scott King (R) and Vice President Dan Quayle (L) look on, May 17, 1989. Photo by Bettmann / Getty Images

But why did society shun, fear and stigmatize left-handers for so long?

Although the simple fact that left-handers are an “aberration” and “different” undoubtedly played a role in the stigma, so did linguistics. The word “sinister” is Latin for “left,” which certainly didn’t help our cause. It also has negative connotations in the languages of French, German, Italian, Russian and Mandarin. Meanwhile, dexterous (“to be adept”) is associated with right-handedness.

The stigma also has deep religious roots. In the Middle Ages left-handers lived in fear of being accused of witchcraft. It was believed that the devil himself was left-handed and that he and his fellow evil spirits were conjured up through left-handed gestures.

left-handed people

‘Devil and Woman on Horseback,’ Nuremberg Chronicle (1493). Wikimedia Commons

This belief didn’t die out in the Middle Ages. “During the Salem witch trials, a woman who was left-handed was much more likely to be accused as a witch,” Suzan Ireland, managing editor of Lefthander Magazine, told The Los Angeles Times. “It stems from a biblical allusion to the devil residing on the left hand of God.”

Others have tried to pathologize left-handedness. In the 19th century physician Cesare Lombroso, who was dubbed “the father of modern criminology,” declared that left-handedness was a dangerous sign of savagery and criminality. In 1903 he famously wrote: “[As] man advances in civilization and culture, 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.”

Cue another wave of fear. Children’s left hands were physically tied down so they would be forced to write and perform other tasks using only their right hands. Although things improved during the post–World War II years, the stigma remarkably persisted into the 1960s and ’70s. This was particularly the case in Catholic schools, where left-handed children simply couldn’t shake their association with the devil.

left-handed people

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In 1977 psychologist Theodore Blau claimed that left-handed children (or, as he labeled them, “sinister children”) were more likely to have academic and behavioral problems. In the 1980s and 1990s, psychologist Stanley Coren presented evidence that left-handed people had shorter lifespans, were more likely to live in poverty and were less physically and mentally healthy than their right-handed peers.

It wasn’t until the late ’90s that much of this research was finally debunked. Psychologist Marian Annett pointed out that the data behind Coren’s findings was faulty: older people were simply more likely to have been forced to use their right hands. Further research has also debunked a once-common myth that left-handed people are more likely to be schizophrenic.

left-handed people

President Barack Obama (C) asks if anyone else is left-handed as he signs executive orders at the White House, January 16, 2013. Jim Watson / Getty Images

Today the fascination with left-handedness remains. Scientists have examined whether or not left-handed people may be “smarter” than righties, and others have speculated about whether or not left-handers possess certain abilities that make them more “electable,” which could explain the recent trend of left-handed presidents.

Of course, old stigmas die hard. In 2015 an Oklahoma mom reported that her four-year-old son’s teacher ordered him to stop writing with his left hand because it’s (you guessed it) the hand used by Satan.

It doesn’t seem as if the fascination with left-handedness — whether it means a person is in cahoots with the devil or destined to be leader of the free world — will disappear anytime soon. But perhaps the strongest takeaway from all this is that it shows society’s persistent obsession with any form of “otherness.” end

 

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