On the other hand
By Harry Eyres
Published: January 21 2011 22:06 | Last updated: January 21 2011 22:06
I want to speak out on behalf of an oppressed minority. This is not one of those minorities one could call fashionable; its oppression might seem negligible, and perhaps most of it, in the west at least, occurred in the past. But left-handed people, who constitute about one-tenth of the population pretty much across the board, have suffered in the course of history.
The negative connotations attached to left-sidedness and left-handedness are remarkably consistent across cultures and across history. Perhaps the most striking is the Latin adjective sinister, which starts off meaning “left” or “on the left hand”, but quickly (in Latin that is) acquires the secondary meanings “wrong”, “perverse” and then (closer to the meaning of sinister in modern English) “unfavourable”, “adverse”, “ill-omened”.
Sinister has passed into many European languages, keeping the link between left-sidedness and inauspiciousness. The French word gauche means both left and physically awkward. In English, we talk about having two left feet to designate clumsiness. The left side fares no better in Slavic or Finno-Ugrian tongues. But this is not just a European phenomenon: the Chinese word for left, zuo, can also mean “improper”. Conversely, the association of right and the right hand with notions of correctness and justice runs deep and broad through European and non-European cultures.
Tarred with this brush, left-handers have either been treated with suspicion or more violently, and with unknowable consequences, “changed” – that is, forced to use their right hand to write.
Why should this matter? I am not left-handed myself, all too right-handed I fear, but my mother is or was left-handed, until she was “changed”. She suspects that such changing might lead to quite profound cognitive and emotional disturbance. A friend tells me her father was beaten repeatedly until he switched from left to right hand, and developed a lifelong stutter.
The more we learn about handedness and the workings of the brain, the more perverse the attempt to denigrate or change natural left-handers appears to be. Left-handers, or at least people who are not strongly right-handed seem, some studies have shown, to be at a cognitive and creative and even sporting advantage. Anyone watching Rafael Nadal, Gary Sobers or Alastair Cook might have worked that out already.
According to the critic and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, in his fascinating book The Master and his Emissary, citing research by Marian Annett: “There are unexpectedly large numbers of left-handers among artists, athletes and ‘skilled performers of many kinds’.” Annett herself goes on to say that it is “not that there is a predominance of left-handers in talented groups, but rather that there is a shortfall in such groups of people who are strongly right-handed”.
And for McGilchrist, the implications of this apparently random quirk could hardly be more momentous. The Master and his Emissary tells a story of the human condition, and human history, based on the “power struggle” between the two hemispheres of our brains – the increasing, and, he argues, disastrous dominance of the left brain, the main seat of language and representation, over the more immediately perceiving right brain, on which it is in fact dependent.
McGilchrist’s thesis is bold and to some extent, given our limited knowledge of the immense complexities of the brain, speculative. But he is a subtle and clever thinker, and unusually qualified to range with such authority over so many different domains of knowledge.
In case you are scratching your head, or racking your brain, about what all this has to do with left-handedness, it is worth recalling one of things which has been known with certainty about the brain since the early days of neuroscience: that motor and other functions on the left side of the body are controlled by the right side of the brain and vice versa. This means that some, not all, left-handers, together with people who suffer from dyslexia and schizophrenia, might be less “likely to show ‘left-hemisphere encapsulation’”. Just possibly, left-handed people, or some of them, might be less locked in to the increasingly artificial world-view delivered by the left brain and more in touch with the more intuitive right brain and its way of perceiving the world.
If that is so, we should be rejoicing at the recent resurgence of left-handers in politics; you might expect Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein to have been southpaws but not Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and David Cameron. But perhaps the real skill or genius in politics lies not so much in being left-handed as in being to see things from both sides, or as many sides as possible, that is being able to bridge the hemispheric and also the ideological divide.