A number of highly scientific studies conducted by Buzzfeed have concluded that “everyone is using their smartphone in the bathroom.”
This (presumably) well-known but nonetheless unappetizing revelation led the media leader to suggest a divide-and-conquer policy. The solution is simple: Use one hand for the phone and the other for, er, everything else. This might seem like a modern innovation, a kind of biological strategy for the digital age, but in fact it is a millennia-old technique.
In Leviticus, all of the important priestly work is accomplished with the right hand. And the righthand side of the body is the side that is ritually purified. Outside the priesthood, important tasks like choosing an heir are done with the right hand. The distinction is even divine. The Bible frequently describes God’s right arm and hand as powerful; God’s right hand is credited with destroying enemies, and Jesus sits at the right hand of power. And, in the Sistine Chapel, God creates Adam with the forefinger of his right hand. The right hand is the right hand, if you know what I mean.
This isn’t just a Biblical view, it’s a cross-cultural phenomenon. Among the Oyo Yoruba of Nigeria, the left hand is also used for anything unclean, and no self-respecting person would offer their left hand to another person. The same distinction appears in multiple cultures, the rule of thumb being: The right hand is for eating, the left for anything impure involving, especially, bodily fluids. In Arabic cultures, from traditional Bedouin to royal Saudi, where food is almost entirely eaten with the hands, only the right hand is used. (Totally amateurish personal theory: This might be why they have breads that are used to pick up food with.)
Over time, what seems to have started as a concession to the messy realities of the human condition started to take on a life of its own. In Western society, left-handedness and even sitting to a person’s left started to become associated with the demonic. The word “sinister” comes from the Latin for “left” and “dexterous” comes from the Latin for “right.” In the 19th century, the physician Cesare Lombroso described left-handedness as a sign of savagery and criminality. This is turn led to the suppression of left-handedness. Children’s left hands were physically tied down in order to force them to use their right hands for important tasks. To this day left-handed children in mainland China are encouraged to learn to write with their right hands because Chinese characters are easier to form for right-handed people. Ned Flander’s Leftorium aside, we live in a world that is culturally and structurally predisposed to favor the right-handed.
This isn’t to say that the left-handed and ambidextrous have never gotten respect. The founding of the Ambidextral Culture Society in the Victorian period aimed to encourage people to acquire ambidexterity. Similarly, in the Bible the book of Chronicles notes that the Benjamites were able to use the slingshot and shoot arrows with both hands. But presumably they weren’t using both for hygiene.
It’s tempting to think that all of these practices are grounded in the same rationale that we would use today: namely, germs. A number of mid-20th-century anthropologists have credited the Yoruba with recognizing the risks of contaminating food. But, as Mary Douglas points out in her book Purity and Danger, good hygiene wasn’t the root of ancient concerns about purity. People might notice dirt out of place on their hands and desire to reinstate order by removing it, but this does not mean that they knew about bacteria.
We could as easily account for right-handed preference by appealing to the majority (90 percent) of right-handed people in the world. Eating requires some dexterity. Splashing one’s tushy with water, less so. And evidence from archeology suggests that right-handed dominance goes all the way back to the prehistoric age: Both flint cuttings and the grooves in ancient stone carvings suggest a predominance of right-handers.
Now it looks as if we are voluntarily returning to an era when the left and right hands are used for separate tasks. Progress sometimes means regress. In the meantime, watch which hand people hold their phones in. That’s the one you want to shake.