How did handedness become moralised, and is the aetiology of handedness biological or cultural? Robert Hertz’s The pre-eminence of the right hand: A study in religious polarity is influential in the realm of studies on handedness and ambidexterity; he addresses asymmetry in the body and hands in the context of a dualism perspective of right and left.
There are various examples on the religious polarisation of handedness e.g. in Islam, the right hand is clean and the left hand is dirty. Also there is an apparent asymmetry of our hands across many societies. By way of example, Hertz emphasised that the Maori perceive that the right is the ‘side of life’ and strength, and the left is the ‘side of death’ and weakness (Hertz 2013). The right hand is sacred, and the left, profane. The right hand is stronger and more superior. Hertz was right to say, “ […] what a striking inequality there is!” despite the resemblance of both hands (ibid.: 335).
A common view sees that the pre-eminence of the right hand is a result of biological differences, and owes nothing to men’s cultural beliefs (ibid.). I beg to differ. Like Hertz, I am of the view that asymmetry is perpetuated socioculturally. It is not uncommon to hear that society exerts pressure on left-handers to become right-handers. An anecdotal example is of my left-handed mother, whom parents only promised to grant her education if she learnt how to write with her right hand. Further, Dr. Jacobs studied native children of the Netherlands Indies who would have their left arm completely bound, to prevent them from using it at all (ibid.). Societies cultivate the use of the right, and discriminate the left. Hertz (in Kushner 2013) posits that is why social selection favours right-handers. On religious polarity, a fundamental dualism that is the sacred and profane dominates the spiritual world. The Last Judgement is Lord’s raised right hand (Hertz 2013). The right hand is use in prayer. Gods lie on the right side whereas demons lie on the left. Social polarity is a reflection and consequence of religious polarity (ibid.).
However, it is pertinent to note that the original text by Hertz was written back in the early 1900s. He urged “modern humans” not to be restrained by the same “ancient prejudices”. Although this terminology may be problematic as “modern” and “ancient” can be contentious, I’d like to leave that discussion for another day. In this vein, I’d go on to infer that he means that we should embrace ambidexterity. For one, ending discrimination against left-handedness could possibly free access to both hemispheres and enable repressed talents and creativity to flourish (Hertz in Kushner 2013). Even though this seems like ideal, I’d like to propose that it is not a be-all-end-all solution. For certain communities, wholly embracing ambidexterity can be easier said than done, and is perhaps less meaningful than it sounds. Today, there continues to be asymmetry in our bodies and hands, in religious and cultural practices — this continues to give meaning and purpose to the things we do, the objects we hold meaning to, and the relationships we establish.
Reading and analysing Hertz’s The pre-eminence of the right hand: A study in religious polarity has definitely gave me insights into debates surrounding the aetiology of handedness, and supplemented my understanding of discrimination of the left hand. Moving forward, researchers could possibly work on contemporary investigations to further develop this discourse.
1. Hertz, R. 2013. The pre-eminence of the right hand. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3, 335-357.
2. Kushner, H. 2013. Deficit or creativity: Cesare Lombroso, Robert Hertz, and the meanings of left-handedness. Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain and Cognition 18, 416-436.