Not long ago, I was at a meeting when a colleague began to take notes. As I watched her clasp a pen in her left hand, I couldn’t help myself. “Ah,” I said, “another lefty” — as if we were both members of a special club.
In a sense, of course, that’s true; left-handed people make up about 10% of the population, although we’ve also had five of the last nine U.S. presidents. And it’s not only in the Oval Office where we stand out. Julius Caesar, Leonardo da Vinci, Winston Churchill, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Oprah Winfrey, Babe Ruth and Jimi Hendrix — all are lefties who have played an outsize role.
As to why this is, there are a variety of theories, ranging from how we process information (“While almost all right-handers process language exclusively in the left hemisphere,” the New York Times has reported, “about half of all left-handers have language centers in both sides of the brain”) to the hurdles lefties have to overcome. Being left-handed means adapting to a world built for righties; from school desks to fountain pens to notebooks, from wearing a watch to stringing a guitar. When I was a kid, my father — also a lefty — taught me to bat right-handed, as he too had been encouraged to do when he was growing up. As for fielding, don’t get me started on the limited options, in that era at least, for left-handed baseball gloves.
For me, left-handedness has always been a badge of honor. It’s a trait I’m pleased to share with my dad. Perhaps the only regret I have about my children is that both are right-handed; I feel as if I’ve let down the side. When he was a boy, my grandfather was retrained to use his right hand — he ended up ambidextrous — and in elementary school, there were never more than one or two of us. Being a lefty, then, has always felt exclusive, like an identifying brand.
Society, however, has often considered it differently. Traditionally, lefties have been derided as unreliable, even suspect. The word “sinister” comes from “sinestra,” which in Latin means “left.” In certain cultures where the left hand is used for personal hygiene, it is known as “the unclean hand.”
And then, of course, there’s politics, in which, depending where you sit along the ideological spectrum, “left” takes on another whole set of contingencies. During the last several election cycles, as partisanship has become super-ionized, we’ve seen the word thrown around like some kind of slur. I flinch every time I hear it used that way, as if it represented a direct attack.
In part, that’s because of my dominant hand, and in part because of how I vote. I am without a doubt, a political lefty, committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, to immigration reform and same-sex marriage, to abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. I know plenty of right-handers who share these values; how could I not, given their majority? All the same, I take a special pride in the link between the hand I use and the ideals I hold, as if this represented an alignment of my body with my soul.
During this month’s midterm elections, Americans in many jurisdictions — including a lot of independents and apparently some Republicans — leaned left, or left enough, to help prevent the anticipated “red Republican wave” from swamping us all. As much as I’d like to think this represents the beginning of an ideological shift, I’ll settle for appreciating the just-in-time emergence of a reasonable electorate.
As for me, I’ve been on that side from the outset. I made a choice about where I stand and what I believe long ago.
At least I think I made the choice. According to a 2009 Stanford University study, “The way we interact with the physical world affects our judgments.” The study didn’t correlate bodily asymmetry with political beliefs but it did conclude that “righties tend to judge objects on their right side as positive and objects on their left side as negative. Lefties do the opposite.”
Does this suggest we need more lefties? Perhaps in a Panglossian best of all possible worlds. In the real world, though, I’ll take trust in our elections and respect for a woman’s right to choose. If that sounds left, so be it; it’s only common sense to me.
What I mean is that at this moment in our history, we could do a lot worse than to embrace our own left-handed tendencies.
David L. Ulin is a contributing writer to Opinion.