Handedness and points of difference

Studies suggest that 90% of the global human population is right-handed and 10% left-handed. This means there are about 60 left-handers in this room.  A minority group. If you are left-handed you are – well – a bit different.

It turns out that men are more likely to express a strongly dominant left hand than women. If you are a Muppet, however, it’s almost certain that you’ll be left-handed.  This is because a right-handed puppeteer (and we can assume that about 90% of puppeteers are right-handed) – they will use their right hand to articulate the puppet’s head, and the left to move the arm-rod.  So, in the world of Muppets, and other hand-puppets, it is the right-handed Muppet that is the minority animal.

Simpsons fans will have noticed that Bart Simpson– and indeed Ned Flanders – are both lefties. This may be a function of the fact that the creator of the Simpsons is left-handed – as was Jim Henson, who invented the Muppets.

Yet, despite the common terminology of “left-handed” or “right-handed”, the distinction is less than absolute. Some of us are more ‘handed’ than others.  We are in effect dotted along a continuum between strong left and strong right.  In between these extremes lie various degrees of mixed-handedness and ambidexterity.  Some of us will prefer the left for certain tasks but not others – we might write with our left hand but play tennis with our right, for example.

Interactive sports such as table tennis, badminton, cricket, and tennis have an over-representation of left-handedness. In cricket, for example, around 1 in 5 on the all-time list of international male cricketers bat left handed.

The smaller the physical distance between participants, the greater the number of lefties. In fencing, for example, it seems that about half the participants are left-handed.  Plenty of boxers are ‘southpaws’. Meanwhile, in non-interactive sports, such as swimming, we see no over-representation of left-handers.  It’s not a relevant factor.

Handedness is something of an evolutionary mystery. One of the earliest theories proposed that handedness in humans was originally evenly distributed, but hand-to-hand battle in the ancient world killed off the lefties because they held the sword with their left hand and the shield in their right, thus leaving the heart much less protected than for righties, who held the shield on the left. As the lefties perished on the battlefield, so did their genes.

A later theory proposed pretty much the opposite — that left-handedness gave warriors a competitive advantage “for much the same reason left-handed tennis players, boxers, or fencers have an advantage.”

In a book called ‘Right Shift Theory [1985], Marian Annett observes that animals have roughly 50-50 split between righties and lefties. Your domestic dog, cat, rat or rabbit has a pretty much even chance of being left or right pawed.  But, for humanity the distribution of preference and performance is dramatically shifted to the right.  Why?  This human bias was triggered, says Annett, by a shift to the left hemisphere of the brain for certain cognitive functions, most likely speech. . . .   The development of complex speech has led to right-hand dominance.

It was once hypothesized that the cultural link between left-handedness and negativity arose due to the left hand’s use for hygiene purposes in non-industrialized countries – that is, wiping your bottom. However, the association has much deeper roots, including the very etymology of the word “left”, which derives from the Anglo-Saxon lyft which means ‘weak’ or ‘broken’.

Even modern dictionaries include such meanings for left as “awkward,” “clumsy,” “inept,” and “maladroit,” the latter one borrowed from French, translated literally as “bad right.” Most definitions of left reduce to an image of doubtful sincerity and clumsiness, and the Latin word for left, sinister, is a well-known negative connotation.  There are many references to God’s right hand – not so many – in fact none that I could find – to God’s left hand.

This tells us a little about the cultural bias that has existed around handedness.  It is not all that long ago in this part of the world that, if a child showed left-hand preference, she was educated (that is, forced) to use the right hand.  I can remember a boy in my class at school called Stuart.  He had terrible hand-writing – a tiny, spidery drawl across the page that often meant his teachers got frustrated at marking his work.  The reason?  He preferred to write with his left hand but his mother was very superstitious, associating left-handedness with negative forces.  It was she who insisted that Stuart learned to write with his non-dominant right hand.  Don’t worry, he’s now a very successful businessman.  And a good touch-typist.

Why talk about left-handedness? Well, it’s a point of difference.  And, I’d like to suggest, that difference is good.  We should not only tolerate and respect difference – we should celebrate it – loudly!  What a tedious and sterile world it would be if we were all right-handed; all good at the same things; all interested in the same things; held the same views; wore the same clothes.

I’m not saying it’s cool to be left-handed, any more than it’s cool to be right-handed. In fact, often we don’t even notice.  A person is a collection of features which, when all added up, amount to something unique.  What’s cool is authenticity – being who you are and letting others be who they are.

So here’s to lefties. Here’s to the leftie in all of us – even us common old righties.  Here’s to all our many points of difference.

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