Anyway, Iyer talked about eccentrics – people who present themselves or behave in ways outside the social norm. Some are perhaps mentally disturbed, while others have just decided to be different. In any case, they present no danger to others. John Betjeman attending Oxford accompanied by his teddy bear, Archibald Ormsby-Gore, would be a good example of a mild eccentric. Betjeman was a failure at Oxford, but that didn’t stop him from becoming Poet Laureate and a successful journalist. Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico (1818-1880) would be another example of an eccentric whose quirks ran a bit deeper. Norton was a man who became dissociated from his personal reality of business failure and thereafter dressed in a bandbox uniform, going about San Francisco as if on an imperial tour of his domain. He wrote President Lincoln about how to handle the Civil War, and Lincoln wrote back in a respectful manner. He lived in poverty, printing his own money which local restaurateurs honored. Everyone humored him, and when he died his funeral was one of the largest ever seen in his hometown. He was part of the scene.
The weirdo is different from the eccentric. The eccentric stands out in a crowd. The eccentric cultivates differentness. But the weirdo is like a leaf hiding in the forest. The weirdo cultivates the appearance of normality. Some are wholesome, family types or community leaders, who nevertheless conceal beneath their exterior awful desires and/or behaviors. Think John Wayne Gacy, the pedophile serial killer. People are always shocked when weirdos commit outrages. They would be the last anyone suspected of such things. Other weirdos mimic the eccentrics, counting on getting the same pass from others that the genuine eccentrics do. Think Charles Manson and his ‘family,” who presented as harmless hippies but were anything but. Some weirdos do get noticed, but the people around them usually do not try to restrain them – until they go from being merely a “loner” to being a school shooter or something.
In any case, Iyer said that the presence of the eccentric and the tolerance for him is an indicator of a healthy society. We are not disturbed by people who are different. We can let them indulge their whims or mild delusions. It costs us nothing to do so. But the presence of the weirdo and our denial at times of what should be clear to us is an indicator of a sick society. Where I differ from Iyer is that I believe the same society can be capable of tolerating the eccentric and at the same time incapable of detecting the weirdo.
And I think that one of the key things that distinguishes eccentricity from weirdo-hood is not merely the likelihood of committing outrages like gun violence or sexual violation, but the demands each places upon the rest of us in society. It costs us little to humor the eccentric, while accommodating the weirdo costs us much. Someone who claims to have been Cleopatra’s bath slave in a previous life may be a bore, but her chatter at the water cooler can be easily ignored. But if the person with the reincarnation fixation were to demand that all others interact with her in ancient Egyptian, that would go beyond eccentricity. Even though she poses no physical danger to anyone else, her demands distort society all around her and cause everyone inconvenience. And if management were to humor her and demand that the rest of us accommodate her desires or lose our jobs, then that is an outrage. In today’s world, that is not a fanciful possibility. People all over want to leverage their supposed victimhood not only to act in an eccentric manner, but to force others to change their behavior to match the reality they’ve chosen – or else. In so doing, they have crossed over from eccentric to weirdo.
A healthy society tolerates eccentrics, but a healthy society should not tolerate weirdos. I think that to be a fundamental distinction. But putting it in practice requires creating and sustaining a societal consensus that is itself healthy, which is not an easy task. Meanwhile, an inquisitorial age, whether it seeks to detect and punish witches or heretics or sexual deviants or traitors or bigots, is always prone to act as a sick society at times, even if the dangers it seeks to combat are real. And a society that puts the weirdos in charge of the inquisition will commit untold damage to everybody before the fever burns itself out.