What’s wrong with being right? Just ask a lefty

By Mellissa Martinez

Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said, “Extremes to the right and to the left of any political dispute are always wrong.” Although he certainly had a valid point, most of us are hard pressed to admit it—in all divisive issues, liberals and conservatives see things differently.

According to liberals, they unite, while conservatives divide; they celebrate diversity, while conservatives fear it; and they favor the common person, while conservatives favor the wealthy. Conservatives, not surprisingly, have an entirely different take on the matter. They promote personal responsibility, while liberals run from it; they respect tradition, while liberals disrespect it; and they promote healthy values, while liberals lack morals.

‘Conservative’ comes from conserve, meaning ‘to protect from loss or harm.’ It was derived from the past participle of the Latin conservare ‘to keep intact, preserve or guard.’ Its Proto Indo European root, *ser, ‘to protect,’ led to relatives reserve, preserve and observe. The word ‘liberal,’ came from liberalis, ‘noble, gracious and generous.’ Its root word, liber, ‘free, generous and unrestricted’ also led to liberate, deliver and liberty. The Proto-Indo European root of liber, *leudh-ero meant ‘belonging to the people.’ With all of these positive qualities, how can either party be perceived as wrong?

‘Right’ comes from the Old English riht, meaning ‘just, good, fair.’ This concept of correctness still exists in its many meanings today. It can mean that which is morally correct, an entitlement, or to restore something to its correct (upright) position. Up until the 1100s, the Old English word for the right hand was swipra meaning ‘stronger.’ In the beginning of that century, people began to refer to the stronger hand as the correct choice, or the ‘right’ hand. The use of ‘right’ and ‘left’ for direction, sides and location later emerged out of our existing names for the hands.

The use of ‘right’ and ‘left’ for conservative and liberal came to us from location. During the French Revolution, seating in the legislative assembly was arranged based on political affiliation. To the right of the king (in the right wing) sat the conservative members who backed him and believed in a constitutional monarchy. To his left sat the liberal radicals who wanted to install a completely democratic government. Eventually, the terms ‘right’ and ‘left’ as political affiliations spread to Britain and the US.

Of these terms, ‘left’ has suffered greatly due to ‘right’s’ superiority complex. Given that the right hand was strongly favored, the left hand was considered deviant. In other words, if you were using a hand that wasn’t established as the correct choice, there was something wrong with you. Some believed that if a person used his left hand, he was perhaps maimed. Even the Latin word for left, sinister, took on the meaning of ‘prompted by malice or ill-will.’ The Old English word lyft literally meant ‘weak or foolish.’

Of course, left-handed people were in a bind—they were forced to change dominant hands or suffer the social stigma of being different. To avoid the negative and superstitious associations, many languages developed euphemisms to replace the word. Left was replaced in Old English by winestra, which meant ‘friendlier’ and in Greek by aristeros, ‘the better one.’ Even today, we soften it by using expressions like ‘lefty,’ ‘goofy’ and ‘south paw.’ Despite their historically low social standing, it is interesting to note that four of the last seven presidents (from the right and the left) have been left-handed!

The next time you shake hands with a person who subscribes to a different political ideology from you, keep something in mind: although left and right for direction, limbs, sides and politics feel distinctly different, they all come from the same place—location, location, location.


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