Give lefties a break | Sunday Observer

Give lefties a break

13 March, 2022
Julia Roberts, America’s “Sweetheart”
Julia Roberts, America’s “Sweetheart”

Whether you like it or not, we are living in a right-handed world. Most human appendages and organs come in pairs. We have two eyes, two ears, two legs, two hands and two lungs. So far we have no problem with our eyes, ears, legs, hands or lungs. However, most of us are right-handed. We cannot write anything and do certain tasks with our left hands.

On the other hand, left-handed people cannot use their right hands properly. Therefore it is strange to find men and women choosing one hand over the other as the instrument of their will leaving the other in the role of assistant or understudy. What is stranger than that is our consistent favour of the right over the left. However, a small minority of people use their left hands ignoring the prejudices, taboos and social pressure.

The original meaning of ‘left’ was ‘weak.’ The left-hand side was regarded as the weaker side of the body. Later the term ‘left’ meant ‘of or relating to a person or group’ favouring radical reforming, or socialist views. The usage is first recorded in English in Carlyle’s account of the French Revolution published in 1837.

According to the account, in the French National Assembly of 1789, nobles were seated on the President’s right and the commons on his left. Left Bank is a district of the city of Paris, situated on the left bank of the River Seine, to the south of the river, an area noted for its intellectual and artistic life. By the way, in a left-handed marriage in Germany the bridegroom gives the bride his left hand instead of his right.

Now consider the plight of those who instinctively pick up a pen or throw a ball with their left hands. One of my colleagues had to shift her table several times because she was left-handed. You cannot expect them to adjust to a right-handed world doing everyday tasks backwards.

Although there is no discrimination against left-handed people today, during the first half of the 20th century prejudice against left-handers was formidable in the United States and Europe. Some teachers used to punish left-handed students. However, a steady decline in anti-left sentiments could be seen today.

Sharp increase

Lefties are not discriminated against today because their numbers are increasing. According to a survey in Britain, the proportion of left-handers has risen four-fold during the past century. The survey indicated 13 percent men and 11 percent women were left-handed. This is a sharp increase from the three percent of lefties recorded in 1910.

In the West the old biases against left-handedness are on the decline due to advanced knowledge in medicine and psychology. However, the bias against left-handedness is still prevalent in Asian countries.

There are social prejudices against using the left hand for writing and eating mainly in India and Sri Lanka. A redeeming factor is that there are fewer left-handed people in Asian countries than in the United States and Europe.

In the 1940s and 50s I saw how parents insisted that left-handed children should learn how to use their right hands.

In a rural school down south where I studied left-handed children were forced to write with their right hands. Some parents and elders thought that left-handed students were suffering from a mental illness.

Today the people are more knowledgeable than their predecessors and they do not consider left-handedness as a malady.


As a child I attended an alms-giving ceremony. An elderly person asked me to offer an item to a Bhikkhu. As I was holding many other items with my right hand, I offered the item with my left hand. The Bhikkhu declined to accept it and asked me to hand it over with my right hand.

This is one instance which shows the prejudices against left-handed people. Even today people give money with their right hand.

It is considered rude to give or accept money with your left hand.

Even some left-handed people try to overcome their left-handedness. When Miyako Miyazaki, Miss Japan in the 2003 Miss Universe beauty pageant, was asked to name her “proudest personal accomplishment”, she said it was overcoming her left-handedness. I have come across many other people who try to overcome their left-handedness.

Discrimination against left-handedness probably began with language. The English word “left” connotes “laziness.” The French word for left is “gauche” which means clumsy or inappropriate. In Japan a business demotion is known as “sasen” which means “moved to the left.” The Korean word “jawcheon” also carries a similar meaning. In the Marathi language, “daavi” means left or second rate. The word was particularly used when choosing a bride in an arranged marriage.


You find an anti-left bias even in religion. According to Buddhism, the right path is good and the left path is bad. Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims believe that the left hand should be used for cleansing yourself after using the toilet. As a result, the left hand is considered impure. Even when you eat, you are expected to use the right hand. We see Buddhists and Hindus walk around shrines clockwise, having their right hands close to the sacred object.

Muslims believe that the right hand symbolizes salvation and the left hand damnation. In Judaism the evil serpent in the Garden of Eden is known as “Sammael” which means “left.” Even the Bible says when God returns He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.

There is a belief that lefties are exceptional people. Although we cannot make such a sweeping statement, many world-famous people have been lefties. Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, was left-handed.

Historians have suggested that Leonardo da Vinci’s left-handedness forced him to think and see in an extraordinary way. Left-hander Napoleon Bonaparte objected to the time-honoured military practice of marching on the left side of the road with weapons at the ready in the right hand.

When Barack Obama signed his first executive order as the President of the United States on January 20, 2009, he joked, “That’s right, I’m a lefty, get used to it.” Lady Gaga used her right hand when she played the guitar, but she is a southpaw. Microsoft founder Bill Gates said, “There’s a little bit of a higher variance of talents, high and low, for left-handers, but it has never been explained.” What is more, America’s “sweetheart” Julia Roberts is a left-handed actor.

Much water has flowed under the bridge. Now the world has accepted left-handedness as something natural. In Japan left-handedness is widely accepted. Many leading universities have installed left-handed desks in their classrooms.

What is more, there are left-hander advocacy groups in many countries including Japan, Malaysia and South Korea. Even factories are now turning out left-handed products for lefties.

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