Giving southpaw a hand.

Kathleen Saal

What’s right is right and what’s left is – well, wrong. For centuries, religion, myth, and custom have conspired to form a negative perception of those guided by the right side of their brains. From left-handed compliments to a left-handed oath and being out in left field, long-suffering southpaws have had to endure the discrimination of living in a right-handed world.

Researches, scientists, teachers and parents have long debated whether left-handedness is a god-given gift or an abnormality that needs to be corrected. The controversy goes back centuries. The left side of anything has long been considered a bad omen, unlucky, evil and dirty. Ancient tarot cards and pictures have often portrayed a left-handed Satan who even plays his fiddle the “wrong” way. The devil and other “bad” influences appear on the left side of Jesus in many religious drawings and paintings. In 17th century America, the accused persons at the Salem witch trails were far more likely to be found guilty if they were left-handed.

On the other hand, the right side has always been portrayed as and believed to be lucky, good and correct: in short, normal. Even in more enlightened times, lefties have faced an uphill battle in learning to use everyday items, such as scissors, can openers, corkscrews, ladles, spiral notebooks, camcorders, stringed instruments and golf clubs – all of which were designed for use by right-handers.

Help is here, though. Since 1985, Munich’s Beratungsstelle für Linkshänder und umgeschulte Linkshänder (Consulting Center for Left-Handers and Converted Left-Handers) has dedicated itself to correcting lifetimes of misgivings, misdeeds and misinformation. The center is financed by the city of Munich and is only one of its kind in Germany. It counsels left-handers and provides information about left-handedness; director Dr. Johanna Barbara Sattler is a psychologist who has written several books on the subject.

Sattler´s work has a personal as well as professional dimension, for as a child she was forced to become right-handed. She believes that genetics determine whether a person is right-handed or left-handed, just as they determine whether a child will be a boy or a girl, short or tall, brown- or blue-eyed. Her research has shown that forcing someone to change dominant hand can do more harm than good.

But long-held beliefs and opinions are slow to change. Sattler says left-handedness has only become socially acceptable in Germany in the past few decades. In the search for a prominent left-hander for the cover of her latest book, Übungen für Linkshänder (Exercises for Left-Handers), which was released in November, she enlisted the help of the White House. On the book’s jacket, a picture shows a left-hander holding a pen (with proper hand placement, of course!) and asks the question “Wem nur gehören diese Hände?” (Whose hands are these?). Upon opening the book, one finds a photo of Bill Clinton. Sattler says that the U.S. president is a good role model for what lefties can accomplish.

In French, left is gauche, or tactless. In Latin, left is sinister, whereas the Latin word for right dexter, is the root of “dexterity” in English. Perhaps a look at the German language can provide some insight into why public attitudes here remained prejudiced for so long. Left-handed in German is linkshändig, and link means double-crossing. The verb linken means to con, while linkisch is used to describe someone clumsy or awkward. Calling someone ein ganz linker Hund (a conniving dog) accuses that person of being a cheat; ein linkes Ding drehen is to do something dishonest. Mit dem linken Fuß zuerst aufgestanden describes getting up on the left foot, that is, on the wrong side of bed. Links liegengelassen, links bügeln, links tragen: these mean the item is either ignored, wrong side up, being ironed wrong side out, or being worn side out.

So left is wrong, right?

Roughly 15 percent of the world´s population – perhaps more – is left-handed, or right-brain dominant. And contrary to popular prejudice, southpaws do exhibit good traits.

Left-handers, in general, are individualistic, creative, intuitive, holistic and image-oriented. They are strategic thinkers. They have unusually good musical memories and are good at recalling pitch. And because of their exceptional sense of distance and proportion, lefties also excel in the fields of art and architecture.

Such qualities could explain why so many left-handers – past and present – have risen to greatness and have undeniably “left” their mark on history. They include: Alexander the Great, Caesar, Joan de Arc, Charlemagne, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Napoleon, Queen Victoria, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, composers Philipp Emanuel Bach and Maurice Ravel, U.S. Presidents Harry Truman, Gerald Ford and George Bush, baseball´s Babe Ruth, tennis stars Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, musicians Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, actors Charlie Chaplin, Robert Redford, Whoopi Goldberg and Emma Thompson, and late-night talk show host Jay Leno.

And what about the famous lefties who were forced to switch hands? They include gangster Al Capone, Winston Churchill, World War II General George Patton and Erwin Rommel, Ronald Reagan and Marilyn Monroe. Some might think only left-handers are really in their right minds.

But then, some things are probably better left unsaid.
Munich Found. Winter 1996/97.
© Copyright: Kathleen Saal
Consulting and Information Center for Left-handers and Converted Left-handers
(Erste deutsche Beratungs- und Informationsstelle für Linkshänder und umgeschulte Linkshänder)
Sendlinger Str. 17, D – 80331 Munich (München), Germany / Europe, Tel./ Fax: +49 / 89 / 26 86 14
http://www.lefthander-consulting.org, e-mail: info@lefthander-consulting.org