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Eccentrics, Those Very Peculiar People

April 19, 2013

Eccentrics, Liberties, Politics

Extreme Ironing

Extreme ironing is a peculiarly British activity involving ironing clothes in remote and strange locations. That this activity originated in Britain should be no surprise, as the British have a reputation for producing world class eccentrics such as Oscar Wilde, who was known for taking his pet lobster for a walk on a leash, and Sir George Sitwell, (father of the famous writer Dame Edith Sitwell) who invented a pistol for shooting wasps and painted his cows with a blue willow pattern to make them look better. Unfortunately we live in a world that no longer welcomes non-conformity. Instead we are told what to do, regulated, indoctrinated, sermonized, censored, counted, and under constant surveillance. Budding eccentrics have probably been diagnosed early on as having ADHD and medicated with Ritalin. Gone are the days when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors welcomed eccentrics such his Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, allowing him to print his own money and patrol the streets in uniform. Produce your own currency today and you are accused of domestic terrorism and go to prison for a very long time.  The extent to which the nanny state has succeeded in permanently eradicating eccentricity from our midst is a matter for conjecture.

In his classic essay ‘On Liberty’ John Stuart Mill wrote: “That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.” Mill was not just concerned with political tyranny but also with “social tyranny” what we now call social conformity. Such pressure, he believed, was frequently more formidable than political oppression “penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.” Eccentrics, Mill thought, were a real benefit to society because they tended to see problems from new and unexpected angles and approaches. I was recently reminded of this by an exchange on this blog with Hanne T. Fisker, at Art of eX’istence, someone who is wonderfully eccentric and who appears to process information very differently from the way most of us do.  Instead of paying attention to logic, consistency and facts, in her own words she “listens with my whole being to an argument, an idea, a story in order to hear what is truly being said, between the lines and behind the words and where they are coming from… and then I follow the line of resonance, where the words are alive…”

When society looks hostilely on anyone who thinks or acts very differently from the majority, it is indirectly encouraging tyranny because in a world where the elites control the lawmaking machinery of the state, breaking the law may be the only moral and honorable position to take. In the words of Henry David Thoreau “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” In 1955 Rosa Parks broke the law when she refused to give up her seat to a white man while riding on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

Yale Professor or Anthropology, James C. Scott argues that it’s likely that one day we will again be called upon to break a big law in the name of justice when everything depends on it. Because society has become so conformist he suggests preparing for this time by performing what he calls ‘anarchist calisthenics’:

“Every day or so break some trivial law that makes no sense, even if it’s only jaywalking. Use your own head to judge whether a law is just or reasonable. That way, you’ll keep in trim; and when the big day comes, you’ll be ready.”

While this sounds radical it is not that dissimilar from the view of Cass Sunstein, until a few months ago the  Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, who in his book Why Societies Need Dissent  wrote: “we can even see the beneficial role of misfits and malcontents, who perform a public service in getting otherwise neglected materials and perspectives to others.” What’s your view?

___________________

“The amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained.” John Stuart Mill

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill

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80 Comments on “Eccentrics, Those Very Peculiar People”

  1. History of Capitalism Says:

    Ah glad to see you like James C. Scott. “Two Cheers” is an odd book, and although filled with spectacular anecdotes it is far form his best. But the man is a genius! And yes, being eccentricity is unequivocally a virtue. Thinking of Moondog, Paul Erdos, so many others.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you. I agree that he is brilliant. I read The Art of Being Governed and was impressed that he could change my view on what these marginalized societies were all about. I also loved Two Cheers and particularly his idea of an “anarchist squint” on life. Not quite sure why he is at Yale, he is too original for them 🙂 I also discovered that he had a Quaker education which goes some way to explaining his anarchist outlook on life.

      Reply

      • History of Capitalism Says:

        You are not the first to notice that it is funny that he is (or was) at Yale, but they tend to have some of the most power-house people by any standards in certain departments. Their History department, for example, ain’t too shabby, and is hardly conservative. I haven’t yet read “Art of Not Being Governed,” but I recommend both “Domination and the Arts of Resistance” and “Seeing Like a State” very highly

        Reply

  2. cufflinkcatholic Says:

    I was reflecting with a colleague the other day about how, in the academy, an eccentric would almost certainly never be hired these days. In this age of apparent liberty, we are all enslaved by the most rigid conformity. Worse still: we fail to see this…

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you. I agree with you about academia. I am not an authority on these matters but I suspect it has something to do with the large amounts of government and corporate funds being channeled into academia. This has an unhealthy way of skewing research in terms of both direction and style. As you say, the surprising thing is that we don’t recognize how conformist we have all become.

      Reply

      • History of Capitalism Says:

        I’m under the impression that there is often an inverse relation (in Human/Social Research) between how much funding people get and how inventive/original/insightful/sophisticated their work is. See: Anthropology.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          I couldn’t agree with you more. My wife teaches at an ivy league institution so I get glimpses of the amount of money pushed through the system and the drivel that often passes for research nowadays.

  3. aurorawatcherak Says:

    Cass Sunstein is an odd duck. On the one hand, he writes that about dissent, but on the other hand, he is the leading proponent for the administrative state’s regulatory bondage. Talk about being double-minded!

    Reply

  4. Ben Says:

    A very interesting and thought-provoking post! A bit more eccentricity could indeed liven things up a bit. As a Christian, I must obey the law up until the point where it conflicts with God’s law (see Roman 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17), so I must disagree with James C. Scott on the subject of “anarchist calisthenics”. On the other hand, standing up for what is right even if it means jail time is easier said than done and would require courage that we should all strive for.

    I enjoy your historical references and quotes very much!

    -Ben

    Reply

  5. Bonnie Marshall Says:

    Malcolm, my appreciation of almost everything Thoreau valued informs the way I lead my life…or wish to lead it. I’m delighted you found the “Panache” poem.

    Reply

  6. Jon Sharp Says:

    I always wanted to be a rebel, but I followed all the rules. I admire eccentricity, but I am a dyed in the wool conformist. I hope someday I might be old enough and wise enough to walk on the cracks in the pavement.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Jon, knowing that you spent a large part of your life rock climbing and that you gave up a lucrative career in tech to study classical guitar, I would certainly not describe you as a risk averse conformist 🙂

      Reply

  7. Marcy Berry Says:

    Loved the post, Malcolm. Yes, we all certainly could use more eccentricity to crowd out today’s rather mindless regimentation. However, do we really have folks the likes of Wilde, Sitwell, Leary, Kerouac, Warhol as examples of eccentricity today who are indeed not appreciated? Richard Branson or Peter Thiel, or Penn Jillette, revered all, do they fit the eccentric bill?

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Marcy, thank you. I definitely think our politically correct culture and education system encourages conformity and discourages non-conformity so, on balance, we probably have less eccentrics than we would otherwise. I do think that Richard Branson, Peter Thiel and Penn Jillette qualify as wonderful eccentrics. When I lived in England I knew Richard Branson’s aunt, Clare. She owned the largest flock of Black Wesh Mountain Sheep in the world and Richard Branson’s only personal attempt at record production was to record the sheep bleating the nursery song Baa, Baa Black Sheep:

      Clare was definitely an eccentric and so, I believe, were other members of the family After listening to Baa Baa Black Sheet can there be any doubt about Richard? As for Peter Thiel, anyone spending a few million dollars on floating colonies at sea has my vote for eccentricity. I’ve never heard or seen Penn Jillette but from what I’ve read I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

      Reply

  8. Daniela Says:

    It is rare I read a post that propels me into crevices of my own mind, and dusty roads of my own soul … but this one did. There is nothing more powerful, more certain to succeed in controlling masses, than stripping them off their peculiarities. When all sheep are the same, they easily follow each other, fell in line one after the other. For shepherds of various persuasions to guide them, to nurture them to protect them … and ultimately lead them to slaughter.

    Thank you,
    Daniela

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Daniela. From your blog I know that you have experienced this first hand as I have vicariously with family members from the former Soviet Union. Perhaps this explains our sensitivity to changes in both the American and European way of life that don’t seem to concern most of the rest of the population.

      Reply

  9. Morgan Mussell Says:

    Great post. Reminds me of a dire prediction Andy Warhol made in the 60’s – “Someday everyone will be thinking exactly what they want to, and it will be the same thing.”

    As far as the lobster on a leash – the French claim the origin of that custom, saying it was Theophile Gautier who walked his lobster in the Tuileries in the first half of the 19th century.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you for reblogging this.That’s a great quote from Andy Warhol. As to walking lobsters I wonder what law I would be breaking in San Francisco if I tried this? At the least I would be reported by some busybody for cruelty to animals although I understand they can survive out of water for up to 2 days. I’m tempted to try it because there is something delicious about appearing to be an eccentric, although I’m definitely not one.

      Reply

  10. Morgan Mussell Says:

    Reblogged this on The First Gates and commented:
    Here’s another good one – a thoughtful essay generated by the British sport of extreme ironing.

    Reply

  11. Michael Denny Says:

    Very well done Malcolm. You are good at this.

    Reply

  12. chr1 Says:

    Malcolm, great post.

    Maybe we’re seeing a kind of backlash to what many (rightly or wrongly) see as too much freedom, especially in your city there in the 60’s. There’s always some norm to measure yourself against in order to become eccentric.

    You bring up good points.

    Reply

  13. aaforringer Says:

    Loved it Malcolm, Another thought to mull over, twist around, step back look at again and then ponder some more.

    Reply

  14. Michele D'Acosta Says:

    Hi Malcolm, thanks again for visiting my blog and liking my post about the world’s most coveted painting. Boy, the day I wrote that post was a red letter day in the calendar for serendipity!! Looking forward to following your blog and discovering your view on the world. m

    Reply

  15. Iris Weaver Says:

    I guess I could be considered eccentric, and it’s a painful way to be in this society. The only thing that might be more painful would be conforming.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Iris. Your comment is not just funny, it also contains a great deal of wisdom. You are also the first commentator on this post that owned up to being eccentric. Keep up the good work.

      Reply

      • Iris Weaver Says:

        Thank you, Malcolm. I’m not comfortable using that term for myself, but maybe I should get comfortable with it. It might make it a whole lot easier to explain myself to people: “Oh, this garland of flowers in my hair? Why, I’m just an eccentric!”

        Reply

  16. Mick Berry Says:

    I’m with you. Great ideas. Mick

    Reply

  17. Kavita Joshi Says:

    very nice read Malcolm…I have re-blogged this on my blog as well 🙂 Have a lovely day and thanks for sharing 🙂

    Reply

  18. Bill Hayes Says:

    Hi Malcolm, Very nice blog you have here (is it for sale?). I have often thought that, in the way that Witch Doctors would have the spiritual experiences on behalf of the tribe, so too the eccentrics express the gentle rebelion for us all.

    I tell of an eccentric from my child hood here (if you have the time to read)

    http://matteringsofmind.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/fangio-fidel-and-fred/

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “the way that Witch Doctors would have the spiritual experiences on behalf of the tribe, so too the eccentrics express the gentle rebelion for us all.”

      Very well put.

      I really enjoyed the story of Fred. These are the silent and unsung heroes that make the world a more interesting place and as you say, express the rebellion that is in all of us.

      Reply

  19. Jill London Says:

    Malcolm, I love all things eccentric and was delighted to discover your post here on the subject. I enjoyed reading what you said about JS Mill (a man ahead of his time) and Thoreau and Rosa Parks but on the subject of Oscar Wilde, where you perhaps thinking of Gérard de Nerval? I hope you can forgive my pedantry as I really think this is a wonderful post and that you have a very interesting and laudable perspective. Thank-you so much for sharing this important topic x

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Jill, thank you so much for this. If you Google ‘Oscar Wilde and pet lobster’ you will find numerous references to Wilde and his lobster including an article from your own Manchester Guardian that repeats the story. However, there are far more numerous and convincing references, including Wikipedia, to Gerard de Nerval being the one with the pet lobster, so I have to say that I think you might be correct and that somehow Wilde was confused with Nerval and I have been guilty of perpetuating an urban myth. Thank you once again for pointing this out.

      Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Jill, as follow-up to my last comment I now have found even more references to Oscar Wilde’s pet lobster so I’m confused. Morgan Mussell pointed out in an earlier comment that it was Theophile Gautier in France who started the ‘fashion’ of taking his pet lobster for a walk. Maybe they all did it? 🙂 If you have any further information on this issue I would greatly appreciate it.

      Reply

      • Jill London Says:

        Hi Malcolm, This is all highly interesting stuff! I know that I read about Gerard de Nerval’s pet lobster whilst doing research at my university library but hadn’t heard anything about Wilde doing the same thing. I would be fascinated to find out whether he did though as, being a Londoner, I like to find out all I can about my home town 🙂

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Jill, I’m not sure we are ever going to find the truth on this one but I bet if we both tried this now, in London and San Francisco respectively, we would both be breaking some law or another and forced to desist. Those eccentrics must have really enjoyed themselves in those days.

        • Jill London Says:

          I bet they did! They sometimes got arrested in those days too but they were prepared to go to jail just to prove their point and live their life as they saw fit. That’s something really quite special in my book, and for most of us I guess, which is why we love eccentrics! I’m going to be posting soon on one of my favourite eccentrics: Erik Satie 🙂 So you must drop by sometime! It’s good to hear from you, Malcolm xx

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Thank you Jill. I look forward to reading your post on Erik Satie. I had never heard of him before (my ignorance). Being French and living at that time I wonder whether he had a pet lobster too?

        • Iris Weaver Says:

          Alright, I can’t stand it, I thought lobsters have to be in water to breath. How can you walk a lobster if it has to be in water to breathe? Something seems amiss here.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Not at all. Lobsters can live out of water for up to two days, as any owner of a pet lobster knows 🙂

  20. Hanne T. Fisker Says:

    Malcolm, deep gratitude from a humbled eccentric, it’s a true honor to be a part of your blog post among such inspiring thinkers, dreamers and doers. I’m wondering if eccentrics see themselves as being eccentric? I never looked upon myself as this only as someone staying true to something deep inside that is almost impossible to explain and therefor rarely understood, however it can be fully lived. That such living can be an inspiration for others still takes me by surprise and makes me honor these choices of honesty and respect towards life even more…

    Reply

  21. A Gripping Life Says:

    Brilliant, Malcolm!

    Reply

  22. Holistic Wayfarer Says:

    I’ve thought on this over the years. In S. Korea, conformity rules. In the classroom, the workplace, the culture.Though you reference British “heretics of meme,” America certainly remains in the vanguard in this regard. I beg to differ with your response to Marcy on American education. We have pockets of places and times where we stand in sharp contrast to the rote, robotic education system of Asia, China, and Korea. (Pros and cons in both types of classrooms.) Creativity and that sacred concept of “I” are not so revered there. America not only allows, but celebrates those who jump off the bell curve. In fact, notoriety is a sure ticket to stardom here. No surprise: independence was the seed of the nation.

    Reply

    • Marcy Berry Says:

      Asking “compared to what” serves to elucidate!  Malcolm’s reply, I believe, is  itself a comparison of what exists today and what could exist if the American educational system provided more incentives for creative eccentricity. However, as an aside, I would think that eccentrics are born, not made. Most interesting topic of discussion you have provided, Malcolm!

      Reply

      • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

        Yes, Marcy, I in fact thought the context was in order – which is why i described my answer a bit in contrast to the Asian system. One day (in my other life) when I walked into a 3rd grade classroom in a PA suburb to provide Gifted and Talented instruction, I posed a question, then invited defense of answers. Some hands shot up, the kids were split. The teacher and I encouraged them to go up to the board and explain their position. It was one of those moments that redeem all the !@#% teachers face in their efforts to teach. Just amazed at what came out of these kids’ mouths (that is, their heads), I realized they were like little attorneys in training, arguing their position. Not that I’m so fond of lawyers (which I’m not) but it was a marvel seeing what encouragement of voice and freethinking could do for little ones. It did not escape my notice that the two Asian kids in class kept quiet. That’s a book right there, which I refrain from writing here. Point is, though, that while not all parts of the American educ system does or can afford to nurture this kind of individualism, the one place in the world you CAN find such encouragement is the land of the red, white, blue. Our very diversity of race, its immigrant roots, renders us more amenable to differences and nonconformity. By example, Korea is a very insular, monochrome nation (less so, the last few decades, with international visitors), but these attributes are very difficult to lodge Koreans out of, mentally; uniformity and conformity not only run through but run the nation at every level. I am aware of the push for Common Core in the States. But on a broader scale, our country is more hospitable to sore thumbs (that stick out) than are many other places in the world. Managing life (socially, esp) with a disability in Korea is a most heavy burden. I have stolen too much time from the homeschooling. I will most certainly hear out any responses. I just won’t be able to keep up the conversation after this point. Anyone is free to take or toss my two cents.

        Best,

        Diana

        Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Holistic Wayfarer, I agree with you that because “independence was the seed of the nation” we are certainly more individualistic than many Asian countries, but as both Marcy and I suggest the public school system in the U.S. is doing its best to eradicate eccentricity. If I can take the liberty of slightly changing a quotation from Andy Warhol it would sum up where I think we are going with this: “Someday everyone will be thinking and doing exactly what they want to, and it will be the same thing.”

      Reply

  23. Casey Says:

    “Because society has become so conformist he suggests preparing for this time by performing what he calls ‘anarchist calisthenics’”

    Oooohhhh…so THAT’s what I’ve been doing all this time…had no idea…

    Reply

  24. cindy knoke Says:

    Protect, save and cherish our eccentrics. God we need them~

    Reply

  25. authorbengarrido Says:

    Most people think I’m pretty eccentric. I just got in quasi-trouble for performing impromptu tire deformation tests in the parking lot, for example.

    As for the perception of eccentricity. When I have money, that’s a charming quality. When I don’t it’s a sign of moral decrepitude, which is just one more in a long list of reasons I feel the need to rebuild morality.

    Reply

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