Sunday, 14 October 2012

Pigeon holed

Someone suggested the other day that the label "eccentric" was out of date, that the people we used to call eccentric would nowadays be diagnosed with a range of mental health problems.

A recluse would be identified as agoraphobic, a hoarder as having OCD, a social clod as having a personality disorder, and so on. They'd all be neatly pigeon-holed by therapists and given a suitable course of treatment.

Well, I think that's absurd. Of course there are people who're eccentric, meaning strange or unusual or wacky, and to reduce them all to mental health categories would be dehumanising nonsense.

It denies the full richness and uniqueness of their identity, as well as implying they aren't just strange but psychologically damaged.

I'm sure we all know a few individuals we would call eccentric - because of their odd clothes, or opinions, or way of talking, or domestic habits. But we wouldn't dismiss them as mentally ill, we'd just see them as a bit dysfunctional, not quite all there.

Attitudes to eccentrics have changed though. A few decades ago people would have enjoyed being seen as eccentric. They would have revelled in it, and tried to be even more outlandish. People like Screaming Lord Sutch, Kenneth Williams and Su Pollard.

But nowadays most people find the label embarrassing, almost a liability. Even if they're privately as eccentric as a pink banana, they take care not to show it but to pass as a normal, unobtrusive citizen. Only if you know them well do you realise they're nutty as fruitcake.

Which means it's hard to think of any contemporary eccentrics. Grayson Perry is about the only one who comes to mind.

But there are plenty out there, lurking behind the grey suits and the sensible dresses. Just doing their thing and trying not to be diagnosed.

Pic: Emilie Autumn, the American singer-songwriter


  1. I don't like the way eccentricity is now more likely to be pigeon-holed in the way you describe.
    Hurrah for eccentricity.
    And more sinister - one of the lesser consequences of paedophile Jimmy Savile's legacy is that eccentrics - especially older men - may now be viewed less tolerantly than before.

  2. perhaps my friend , people today are just less tolerant than they used to be

  3. strike that last comment
    on reflection I think I mean people are ore suspicious
    hey ho

  4. Paul: Indeed, one sad consequence of the Jimmy Savile revelations is that anyone resembling an eccentric may now be seen as a potential sex abuser.

    John: You're right, people are more suspicious than they used to be and less likely to give people the benefit of the doubt.

  5. The homogenization of our society is a crime. Everyone needs a slot.



  6. www: We all need space to express ourselves properly and find out who we really are, as opposed to what other people expect us to be.

  7. Nick,
    Have you not yet carved out that space for yourself? You seem to worry a lot about what other people think. It sometimes take courage to be our true selves.

  8. The idea that psychologists are quick to "pigeon-hole" eccentrics into disorders is, to this psychologist, offensive. Firstly, true hoarders do indeed have a mental illness. Recluses are not always agoraphobic, but often have some form of mental illness as well. And social clods? Well, some have personality disorders, some have Asperger's, some are just unskilled. But just because you don't like the idea of people being appropriately diagnosed, doesn't mean it's wrong. The question is, do they make their own lives, or the lives of every one around them, miserable because of the disorder and can they be treated to allow them to live happier lives That's all treatment is about, after all.

    The people you actually identify as eccentric are all performers. Their eccentricities are largely irrelevant. And for all the people who are not mentally ill but just a little quirky, I don't know a single therapist who would devise a "suitable course of treatment" for that. In fact, most therapists spend a good deal of time reassuring people that the things that make them unique are to be celebrated.

    Seems to me, you are doing a little "pigeon-holing" yourself by dealing in stereotypes about mental health professionals.

  9. I always thought true eccentrics were sort of proud of their status? If you are purposely doing something to stand out, you probably want to be noticed.

  10. Monk: I do worry too much about what other people think. Even though I try not to.

    Agent: Oh, I think you misunderstand. I'm not criticising psychologists and mental health pros, I'm criticising the person who thought eccentricities could simply be reduced to mental disorders. I'm all in favour of therapy and sorting out psychological problems that are disrupting your life.

    I totally agree that people who're just a bit quirky and unusual don't need to consult a therapist, unless to get the reassurance you mention. And I certainly didn't mean that therapists go round pigeon-holing everybody with some mental disorder. Clearly I didn't express myself very well.

  11. Bijoux: I don't think eccentrics necessarily want to stand out, I imagine some are embarrassed by their oddities and try to keep them hidden.

  12. dunno if i qualify as eccentric but i quite like the description

  13. Kylie: I seem to remember you describing me once as a mild eccentric. As opposed perhaps to a wild eccentric. Or a totally rabid eccentric.

    No, I wouldn't say you were eccentric. But I'll call you that if you quite like it....

  14. I think people are becoming extraordinarily conventional, I've been noticing it for a while now. Maybe that's just another version of what you are saying in this post!

  15. Jenny: I think you're right, people are getting more conventional. Maybe the recession is making people a bit more cautious and afraid of being too different.

  16. Pigeon holing is almost always a bad thing, in my opinion, but as to eccentricity, OH and I are proud to be called (by some) eccentric.

    He is more successful at it than I am, but I think it's a state to be envied and encouraged. Three cheers for individuality!!

    I've always thought of Patrick Moore, the astronomer, as one of our greatest English eccentrics,

  17. Jay: Glad to hear you like being known as eccentric!

    I'd forgotten about Patrick Moore. Indeed, a great English eccentric who revelled in the fact.