The Backward Child
Left-Handedness in Culture
We know a few things for certain about left-handers: They comprise around 10 percent of the world’s population, and more are male than female. Beyond the realm of fact, however, it gets more complicated. Left-handedness has historically and often for no good reason been perceived as a source, variously, of evil, clumsiness and genius. How have left-handers shaped culture, and how has culture defined left-handedness? This map charts the links between seven sinistral subjects.
The word sinistral emerged in 15th-century late Middle English to mean “left-handed.” As its similarity to the word sinister suggests, sinistrality was associated with evil thoughts and bad omens. Leonardo da Vinci was born out of wedlock in the 15th century. At the time, it might have been reasonable to conclude that da Vinci turned out left-handed because he was conceived in sin. Yet superstition did not prejudice everyone against him: Left-handedness did not prevent renowned Italian artist Andrea del Verrocchio from apprenticing da Vinci at age 14, nor did it hinder a genius like da Vinci from making boundary-shattering advancements in the arts and sciences.
Many commentators cite da Vinci’s sinistrality as a premier example of left-handers’ disproportionate potential for artistic talent. Despite achieving some credibility within popular culture, however, connections between left-handedness and genius (or affliction, for that matter) remain “anecdotal at best,” according to a 2012 New York Times article. Certainly da Vinci’s sinistrality allowed him to more easily prepare “mirror writing”—words transcribed with the letters facing backward and the words reading right to left. Researchers have determined that people who practice mirror writing are disproportionately left-handed.
Although the word ambidextrous is popularly understood to describe someone equally skilled with both hands, the root dexter in Latin means “right,” and ambi means “both,” so the literal interpretation of ambidextrous suggests someone with two right hands—implying that left-handedness is an inherently less coordinated disposition. Indeed, many languages embed the common assumption that the left hand is clumsier than the right. In French, the word for “left” is gauche, which is also a synonym for awkwardness and crudity. The English word left originates from Anglo-Saxon’s lyft, meaning “weak.”
Cognitive studies have found no definitive correlation between left-handedness and a lack of physical coordination, but a broad range of cultures worldwide have historically tended to favor right-handedness, in technology and in daily life. While it is no longer popular in Western societies to try to “reform” children of their left-handedness, we still construct everyday items—from doors and household appliances to power tools and cars—that can make lefties appear slightly more awkward, at least upon first glance, than their right-handed counterparts.
Before the industrial revolution and mass production, left-handers might not have needed to struggle with objects designed for the other 90 percent. They could have asked the village carpenter to build a house with doors opening to the left; the blacksmith could have fashioned cutting instruments with serrated edges on the right side of the blade. But as the Frankfurt School of social theory explained in the mid-20th century, the mass production of consumer goods has a homogenizing cultural effect. Today left-handers have two choices: (a) conform and develop some facility with right-handedness or (b) cross the boundaries of mainstream consumer culture in search of left-handed scissors, cutting tools, computer mice and cameras.
Given the human desire to personalize one’s home, the tendency to favor righties in appliance design is particularly grating. Luckily, today’s expansive free market also provides left-handers with a wide variety of appropriately handed objects. Department stores often carry left-handed scissors, and websites such as Anything Left-Handed offer top-rated products that include a left-handed peeler, kitchen knives and fountain pens. Most refrigerators come with a choice of right- or left-handed doors, though even righties may want the latter, depending on how their kitchen is configured.
The Backward Child is English educational psychologist Cyril Burt’s attempt to “describe, group by group, the main forms of mental subnormality to be met with among children of school age…, the backward and the dull.” Burt singles out left-handed children among these “subnormals.” He was convinced that left-handed “impairment” is a physical condition, however, not a mental one. “If it is ever safe to treat left-handedness as a sign or symptom,” Burt writes, “it should be regarded rather as a mark of an ill-organized nervous system than of a dull or deficient mind.”
Like such late-19th-century pseudoscientists as Cesare Lombroso and Max Nordau, Burt seems attracted to the idea that an individual’s failure to properly integrate into society must be the result of some deformity. “Awkward in the house and clumsy in their games,” he writes of left-handed children, “they are fumblers and bunglers at whatever they do.” In the 1930s, when Burt’s book was published, psychologists argued whether left-handedness was innate or acquired. Because of this, Burt remained ambivalent about whether left-handedness should be tolerated or prohibited in schools, and for him, the possibility of innate handedness made left-handedness a hopeless affliction, not an equal-but-different trait.
Cyril Burt’s Backward Child is a primer on Western education’s repressive attitudes toward left-handed children. Burt describes a typical method of “reforming” left-handed students in England, “which maintained that any child caught holding a pen in his left hand should have his knuckles rapped.” Horror stories of teachers binding a child’s left hand to force the use of the right are infamous reminders about past generations’ intolerance of difference. Such repressive techniques were mostly fueled by psychologists and psychiatrists, who believed left-handedness was a sign of failed socialization. Physical abuse of left-handed schoolchildren largely ended with the rise of the more permissive counterculture of the 1960s, which celebrated difference.
Since then, numerous studies have attempted to demonstrate that lefties are more naturally creative than righties, offering artistic geniuses such as left-handers Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo as anecdotal evidence. One neurological theory argues that lefties are more likely to be right-brain dominant (key elements of the creative process appear to be located in the brain’s right half). Behaviorists also explain that left-handed children have had to adapt to a right-handed world and therefore by necessity develop more flexible thinking and problem-solving skills. Neither hypothesis has been proven.
In baseball, the term southpaw became popular in the mid- to late 19th century to designate a left-handed pitcher. Because ballparks were usually built with home plate to the west (so the batter looks east, away from the late-day sun), a left-handed pitcher would naturally face to the south. Although Barack Obama is left-handed, it may not be appropriate to call our 44th president a southpaw, because Obama’s sport of choice is basketball. In that game, which has no shortage of professional lefty stars, the southpaw label is conspicuously absent. Despite being a baseball fan, Obama claims no practical expertise at the sport. Indeed, when throwing out the first pitch at the 2009 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, Obama lobbed an awkward toss that barely made it to home plate, provoking a fierce debate on YouTube about whether or not the throw was good. Joking about the controversy, the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper published a hyperbolic headline that claimed Obama’s “Maiden Throw Divides America.” Claiming a violation of copyright infringement, Major League Baseball has tried to scrub all online traces of the infamous clip.
While the word sinistrality has fallen out of common use in modern English, its close relative sinister remains a popular adjective to describe comic-book villains, genocidal dictators and, for some Americans on the far right side of the political spectrum, President Barack Obama. Although an Englishman of the 15th century would have found a natural association between malevolence and the president’s left-handedness to be quite understandable, we will not likely hear such a connection made on Rush Limbaugh’s talk radio program during one of his bellicose rants against Obama. Nor do we find it among the conspiracy theories on Glenn Beck’s blackboards. Perhaps one reason for this hesitation is that five of the past seven U.S. presidents were born left-handed, including Republicans Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan (who, keeping up appearances, later learned to write with his right hand). While conservatives decry Obama as a sinister left-winger, it appears that having a sinistral head of state has become a thoroughly bipartisan practice in modern America.