Taylor: The challenge of being different

Extraordinary times are when it may be most beneficial to go against the flow.

Like me, Steve Roney is left-handed.

When we write by hand, we curl our wrists above the line, instead of keeping them straight as taught by the MacLean Method of Cursive Handwriting.

Earlier this year, while Steve was signing a document, a man standing nearby sarcastically asked another man, “Can that be corrected?”

The short answer is, yes it can. My mother was left-handed too—left-handedness is genetic—but her teachers forced her to switch to her right hand. They whacked her knuckles with a ruler whenever she used the wrong hand.

The longer answer, though, begs a question. Why should it be corrected?

Because it’s different.

Those who belong to the complacent majority tend to see anything different as a threat. Therefore they feel compelled to stamp out that difference. Even if the person was born that way.

This view assumes that doing something in a different way from most people is an “error” an “inferiority,” a defect that must be corrected. By brute force or brainwashing, if necessary.

This prejudice prevails, even though many famous people were left-handed. According to Google, the list includes Joan of Arc, Julius Caesar, Queen Victoria, Mozart, Beethoven, Alexander the Great, Pablo Picasso, and Albert Einstein. Bill Gates and Barack Obama both sign documents with their left hands.

Admittedly, the list also includes some less admirable characters, such as Jack the Ripper. And, depending on your political leanings, Fidel Castro and Maggie Thatcher.

But prejudice against left-handedness is just one example. Sexual orientation is another. In northern Nigeria, so is religion. And among diehard Republicans, anything remotely resembling socialism.

Although nothing in the Bible suggests that Jesus was left-handed, he paid a price for daring to do things differently.

Yet it should be obvious that all human progress has depended on not doing things the same way as everyone else.

Of course, there’s a risk involved in doing things differently. You will either do things better than others, or worse. If your deviation from the norm makes you, and those like you, less fit to survive, you will eventually render yourself extinct.

But if you do better, others have to follow—or risk extinction themselves.

Rebecca Solnit wrote in TomDispatch about a specific instance—a man who ignored official instructions to go back to his office on the 66th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Centre, September 11. He got out safely. Thousands who obeyed those instructions didn’t.

As Solnit wrote: “People in power and bureaucrats seem exceptionally obtuse when it comes to recognizing that the world has changed…The advisors in the towers gave excellent instructions for previous crises… Sometimes the right thing to do in ordinary times is exactly the wrong thing to do in extraordinary times.”

Solnit cited several concepts—from abolishing slavery to giving women the vote, from phasing out fluorocarbons and acid rain to enforcing seatbelts and airbags—that were once considered radical, even dangerous. Now they have become the norm.

You don’t have to be left-handed to challenge the status quo. You do have to have the courage to be different.