Beware the Sinister Left



We hear an awful lot about xenophobia these days.  It is on the rise, they say; a natural but unwelcome by-product of industrialization, globalization and growing inequality.  Unmoored from the security of local, more symbiotic communities, our natural disposition to empathy and tolerance has been supplanted by an attenuated “we-them’ view of every aspect of human interaction.  Or so the story goes.

I was pondering this depressing reality as I was shovelling off my dock at the cottage a few weeks back.  (I leave my dock in with a “bubbler” that keeps the water from freezing, but the snow must be periodically cleared from the dock to keep the dock high enough in the water to remain free of the ice).  Between the monotony of the task and the pain in my aging back, it is always best to have a pressing social issue to ponder for distraction.

It did not take much pondering/shovelling before the pain in my back necessitated a change in approach.  I am right-handed, and accordingly hold the shovel with my right hand at the top of the shovel and my left halfway down, with which I lift the load before twisting to my left to toss it aside.  It is the left side “load and twist” motion, initiated in the course of my left shot hockey and golf activities as well as shovelling, that is the culprit behind the back pain.

The solution was simple enough: shift over to shovel left handed.   And it worked; the pain eased instantly, but it was slower, more awkward and it just didn’t feel…right; which of course it wasn’t because it was…left.  As I struggled along with this “not right” solution, my pondering shifted from the perils of our increasingly xenophobic world to the interesting double meaning of the word “right”.

I had the benefit of a high school education that even in the 70s maintained a commitment to the Classics, so I have enough Latin under my belt to know the Latin words for “right” and “left” – “dextro” and “sinistra”.  As the roots of the English words “dextrous” and “sinister”, it was clear to see that Anglo-Saxons weren’t the first to associate admirable traits with the 87-92 % of the population that is right-handed and negative traits with left-handedness.  And I was also aware of the French “droite” and “gauche”, which enter English, as “adroit” and “gauche”.  Even to the French, to be right-handed was to be skillful and adept, while southpaws were unsophisticated and socially awkward.  A little independent research revealed the Old English roots of right and left:  “riht” meaning just, good, fair, proper, fitting and straight and “lyft” meaning weak and useless.

So where did my back breaking reflections take me on this?  Xenophobia is no modern invention.  Even entirely local and ethnically homogenous communities found excuses to marginalize “otherness”.  It is a tradition as old as the spoken word, and we have continued it to the present day (witness the labelling of undocumented foreigners as “aliens”, so “othered” that even the common bond of species is not conceded).  Christian-Pagan, Catholic-Protestant, Muslim- Christian, Gay-Straight, Sunni-Shia; there is no theme more recurrent in the history of social and political conflict than xenophobia.

Happily, longstanding may not mean inevitable.  The schisms that breed suspicion and enmity today are just as likely to be dismissed as laughable distinctions in the future as persecution of the left-handed would be today.  We may be naturally xenophobic, but we have an uncanny ability to replace superstition with wisdom through our lifelong capacity to learn.

Now if only I could master this “shovelling right” thing.

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