Broken Identity: What the stigma against left-handedness means for Eastern European democracies
Illustration credit: George Balica

The communist regimes that ruled in Eastern Europe until 1989 aimed to create a homogenous society, with common property ownership, no social classes and no differences between individuals. Under the far-left dictatorship, anything that opposed the socialist ideology was banned. Including, ironically, people’s innate reflex to use their left hand for basic, mundane tasks.

Left-handed people were a product of the imagination in Eastern Europe pre-1989. If you were born left-handed in the Soviet Union, you had to become right-handed. There is still a fair amount of uncertainty as to what makes people use one hand over the other. What scientists widely agree on is that it is determined by a certain gene in the spinal cord. It is also believed that left-handed people’s brain functions are ‘organised’ differently from right-handed ones’. Nowadays, the right- to left-handed ratio in humans is 9:1, so only 10% of the human population is left-handed.

Because this is a matter of genetics and out of one’s control, the communist oppression on people’s handedness seems even more distressing. Sure enough, genes do not change through force and coercion. Although the left-handedness in my family dates back a few generations, I am the only one who had the freedom to embrace it.

BEING LEFT-HANDED IN MODERN EASTERN EUROPE

Growing up, having people gasp or look at me in shock when I was using my left hand to do any basic task, like eating or writing, became normal. At school, I was the only lefty in a class of 30 pupils. My classmates were so startled by this, that they’d often ask me to try and write with my right hand and, when I proved I was practically unable to even hold a pen properly, they couldn’t wrap their heads around it. There were a few instances where they’d brought me to tears, constantly asking me to prove my left-handedness, as if I was an oddity and writing with my right hand was an entertaining performance.

But a child’s curiosity is incomparable to indoctrinated parents’ oppressive practices which continue nowadays. Primary school teacher Izabela, 44, from Romania, recalls being told by a pupil’s mother to feel free to hit him when he picked up the pen with his left hand or even tie his arm behind his back, both of which were common practice under Communism. This happened only a few years ago, so long after democracy was reinstated in the country. Izabela said: “The boy was so scared of the simple fact he couldn’t write with his right hand that he often refused to write at all in class”. Such actions are still common in some Eastern European families, because of the successful propaganda consumed under dictatorship.

CONTEMPORARY MANIFESTATIONS OF STIGMA AGAINST LEFT-HANDEDNESS

My great-grandmother, now 86, who lived under Communism from age 13 to 55, sees left-handedness as a disability. On numerous occasions, while trying to teach me how to sew or cook, she couldn’t bear to even watch me using my ‘wrong’ hand and tried repeatedly to make me switch hands. I managed to trace back left-handedness in my family, on both of my parents’ sides and found out my father, my great-aunt and grandmother were born lefties. They were all forced to change through aggressive methods, like having their left arm tied behind their back both at school and at home. Neither my father, nor my grandmother remember ever being told why they were not allowed to use their natural hand. “The teachers only said it was not right”, recalls my grandmother, now 69.

This was common practice under socialism and made people think being a lefty was a defect that had to be corrected immediately. Parents were anxious when their toddlers picked up a pen or a spoon with their left hand, and sighed in relief if they were using their right. Knowing I am left-handed, when my brother first learned how to write, most of our old relatives would ask if he too was a lefty, clearly showing delight when they found out he was not. This stigma was caused by false propaganda statistics, created by communists, saying that lefties had a higher chance to become criminals or develop psychiatric conditions.

SOCIAL CONSEQUENCES

The implications of such practices are alarming, particularly on a social level. They had nothing to do with wiping left-handedness off the face of the earth, but rather with creating a social order, where identity and individuality were abolished. This created widespread stigma against people who were merely different from the majority, which in turn became a threat for people with other particularities out of their control, like sexuality or disabilities.

The socialist ideology shaped a population that still winces at anything slightly unusual and is hesitant to embrace change and tolerance even nowadays. It encouraged bullying and abuse, enabling teachers to ‘break’ lefties in order for them to fit in. It had an impact on language too. In Russian, ‘left’ can mean ‘fake’ or ‘of poor quality’ and in Romanian, starting something ‘with your left foot’ means making a mistake. Having ‘two left legs’ shows clumsiness and, in orthodox practices, crossing yourself with your left hand is unacceptable, because the right hand is ‘the hand of blessing’.

POLITICAL CONSEQUENCES

The scarlet letter stamped on lefties’ foreheads in Eastern Europe has had an impact on political affiliations and plurality, two core values of modern democracies, as well. Looking at parliamentary elections in Europe in the last five years, German newspaper Zeit Online published an interactive map, showing the political majority in all the countries subjected to the analysis. The 2015 Parliamentary Election in Poland showed an overwhelming support for the far right. In Hungary, in 2018, the dominant party were the right-wing conservatives, as was the case in Croatia and Slovenia. Romania was mostly split between socialists and liberal-democrats, with very low political representation of other ideologies. In Slovakia, there was an overwhelming support for the socialists, followed by the far-right in some areas. This shows a lack of diversity in political affiliations, with right-wing ideologies dominant in certain parts of Eastern Europe.

The stigma against left-handedness is only one consequence of Eastern Europe’s communist history and its implications have snowballed into scepticism, a lack of tolerance, and a lack of diversity on the political scene. Three decades of democracy have yet to reshape the former Eastern Bloc, where being part of a minority of any kind is still often met with raised eyebrows.