The oppression of lefties

Web Special: Left-handedness. It's one of the few things Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman, Aristotle, Henry Ford, Yogi Berra, O.J. Simpson, Bill Clinton, and Napoleon Bonaparte have in common. In fact, it's a trait shared by approximately 10 percent of the world's population. Left-handers represent a significant minority, and throughout history they have often been at a disadvantage in a broad range of categories including language, education, genetics, and machinery. Thankfully, the treatment of left-handers within society is showing continual improvement, especially since the late 20th century; but in order to appreciate this golden age for left-handedness, we must first recall to the not-so-good old days, when it was hard to be a lefty.

Linguistics has not been kind to the southpaw. In virtually every human language, the terms for left-handedness and the direction left have negative connotations. For example, our English "left" is derived from the Anglo-Saxon lyft, meaning "weak" or "broken." The Latin word for "left" is sinister, which is not far off from the Latin sinistrum, which means "evil." In German, "awkward," "clumsy," and "maladroit" are all additional definitions of the word for "left," lindisch. Additionally, in Spanish, you can use the expression no ser zurdo to mean "to be clever," but it literally translates to "not to be left-handed." And, going back to English, our language is loaded with phrases that relate left-handedness to wickedness and dishonesty. Nobody wants to receive a "left-handed compliment," patronize a "left-handed business," or be given a "left-handed diagnosis."

Have we been programmed to associate left and left-handedness with evil? In his book The Left-Hander Syndrome, right-hander Stanley Coren argues that language, in combination with several other factors, has propagated a historical "discrimination" against the left-handed. In the introduction, Coren insists that to call the ill-treatment of left-handers "discrimination" is not an exaggeration. He has demographical data and information concerning the education of left-handers to support his claim.

In the '80s, Coren conducted a survey pertaining to left-handedness that produced startling results. He inquired as to the handedness of a group of individuals diverse in age and found that the percentage of left-handed participants was dramatically lower in the older age groups. To illustrate: 16 percent of the 10-year-olds that he interviewed were left-handed, but only five percent of the 50-year-olds were left-handed, and less than one percent of the 80-year-olds were left-handed. From his data, Coren concluded that left-handed individuals die, on average, earlier than the rest of the population.

In 1987, Coren decided to test his theory by conducting further research. He used The Baseball Encyclopedia, an index of all of the American baseball players up to 1975. Coren was thus able to analyze the handedness and ages of death of over 2200 uniformly male subjects. As he wrote in The Left-Hander Syndrome, "In effect, the data showed us that, for any given age, the percentage of left-handers who will die will run around two percent higher than the rate for right-handers." Respectively, the average ages of death for the right- and left-handers in his test pool were 75 and 66. That's a nine-year difference — even more dramatic than the seven years by which females typically outlive males.

There are essentially two reasons for the disturbing trend. For one thing, left-handers are more likely to suffer from a host of illnesses. In his book, Coren cites alcoholism, depression, insomnia, and about a dozen others. Additionally, it's hard to deny that the world is set up for right-handed individuals — this is part of the "discrimination" that Coren is talking about. All sorts of things, from can-openers to chainsaws to cars, are generally easier for right-handers to operate. Coren recalls interviewing a group of 21 mill workers in Canada, four of whom were left-handed. All four left-handers were missing at least a part of one finger, while only two of the remaining 17 right-handers were likewise disfigured.

Coren has an additional explanation for a small representation of left-handedness in old age: Older generations of left-handers were often pressured to switch to right-handedness. Left-handedness was long thought of as a defect. For example, in 1922, a paper in New Jersey ran an article with the title "Left-handedness is cured among pupils." Such an effort was not unusual until the middle of the 20th century. Teachers often yelled at or hit left-handed students if they did not attempt to use their right hands, and Coren even mentions that some students had their left hands fastened to their desks during handwriting class so that they would be unable to use them. Coren reports that approximately 55 percent of left-handed people have attempted to switch their handedness at some point in their lives, and about two-fifths have been successful.

However, "switching" isn't as thorough as it may sounds. Coren noted that "handedness changes only for the specific actions singled out for right-sided pressure." Thus, a left-hander can learn to write right-handed, but he or she will still be fundamentally left-handed. He or she would still perform other tasks, such as operating machinery and playing sports, as a left-hander.

Maybe this is a good thing. Left-handedness isn't a bad habit shared by 10 percent of the world — it's a characteristic. The left-handed members of society might still want to be wary of heavy machinery, but nobody is trying to get them to change. I'm left-handed, and whenever I encounter another left-hander, we always spend at least a moment appreciating our similarity. At Carnegie Mellon, you're more likely to find a student from New Hampshire than one that is left-handed. So smudge your pencil lead with pride, and try to enjoy your life as much as possible, in case it really is cut short by nine years.