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