I’m a weirdo. But in a good way. And I hang out with other weirdos-in-a-good-way every chance I get, because that’s the best company in the world. But we all know weirdos-in-a-bad-way, too, and they are the worst company, the destroyers of any groove and the killers of fun times. You are uncomfortable around them. You want them to go away. You wish they wouldn’t show up at meetups and events. You are keen to brush them off and avoid them so you can find the fun people to hang out with. But it’s not just the bad crazy people that bring you down. Even folks in between, who are just dull or stuffy or so socially conformed that (if you’re a weirdo like me) you just don’t fit in with them, too. They aren’t weirdos. In fact, their principal defect is that they aren’t weirdos at all. But you don’t care much for their company, either (but if it’s the best you can have on the occasion, you can make the best of it).
And of course, like all things, the paragraph above describes a continuum, and people can fall anywhere along it. But the best company is way to one side, the worst on the other, and everyone else in between. If you’re like me, how comfortable and happy and fulfilled you are in anyone’s company is a direct function of where they are on that curve. Or at least, this is true for the good weirdos, the weirdos I fit in with. The non-weirdos are a bit uncomfortable around us, too, and would rather hang out with other middle-of-the-curve people. I can’t speak to what the bad weirdos prefer, because I assiduously avoid them and thus don’t have much data on what they prefer. But those good crazies? They’re my kind of people. (I also know plenty of people midway between good weird and fuddy duddy who like and get along with both, and I’m comfortable around them but still not as much, and vice versa. Thus it all comes by degrees and not absolutes.)
Are you like me? Do you prefer (even love) the company of “crazy” people, who are the good kind of crazy, but can’t stand (and do all you can to avoid) the company of “crazy” people, who are the bad kind of crazy? What’s the difference then between good crazy and bad crazy? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, because I’ve been doing a lot of events this past month and a half (doing nine or ten gigs, spanning three states), intensifying the experience I always have when doing what I do, which is for ten years or so now, as a speaker and special guest, speaking to, meeting, and typically dining or drinking with atheist groups all over the U.S. (and Canada). (Although what really got me to thinking about all this was the new awesome Garbage song Not Your Kind of People, which I’ve been playing during my drives this last week, philosophically contemplating its lyrics. Best Garbage album in history, BTW. But then I’m a weirdo, remember?)
Let me describe two scenarios, so you can consider if you’ve experienced the same. (You will, if you get out and hang with atheists anywhere on a regular basis long enough–and probably not just atheists, as I’ve heard the same about church groups and religious meetups and even book clubs and academic clubs, and pretty much anywhere diverse people hang out because of some common cause or passion and not just because they are long established friends. But it’s atheist communities I have the most experience with, extensively and by far.)
Scenario 1. There’s always that one (or few) people at any atheist event or meetup (and again, probably not just atheist crowds, I just have way more experience with them) who are irrational or irritating nutcases in some degree. They might be full on bonkers, but more often they are just mildly off. They aren’t very attentive to the feelings or interests of others, but often obsessed about something (or sometimes several things), to which they’ve often attached a carnival of delusions. They often exhibit textbook symptoms of common mental disorders, like paranoia or narcissism or other things you are sure there must be a name for, and if there isn’t, there should be.
Maybe you know what I mean. The weird guy who is obsessed with getting every atheist organization to speak out against the evils of circumcision and won’t shut up about it. The hyper-libertarian girl who seems like a sound and even-keel skeptic until she starts spouting the easily-debunked mythology libertarians base their beliefs on like some sort of religion, and literally won’t see reason even when her claims are debunked right in front of her, data held up on a glowing iPhone screen. (Like a creationist, she retreats to dogmatic mantras and assertions instead of admitting she was resting conclusions on false premises…because her beliefs, you see, have to be true, so if all her data is wrong, the right data simply must be out there…you know, somewhere). Or those people who monopolize your time and won’t go away or let someone else speak, and want to talk about their issues and not hear about anyone else’s. And on and on. The varieties and iterations are endless.
Scenario 2. You’re with people who are often quite diverse (by age, gender, ethnicity, and interests), who curse like sailors and drink like fish (or love the company of those who do), who all have weird fetishes or goals or interests or senses of humor or personal style, who are in many ways really unlike you and yet somehow so just like you, and yet who are responsible and mature and level-headed in every way that counts. They just don’t “fit in” to all the social norms around wherever. You feel at home with them. You don’t have to censor yourself around them. You can be yourself around them, be a weirdo around them. Yet a lot of society would be uncomfortable around them. Or tsk tsk at them. Or use them as examples of immaturity or insanity or immorality or how the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Or in one manner or another wouldn’t like them and would certainly not invite them to dinner (unless they had to or felt obliged to, and even then it’s with trepidation).
Age is often a factor. Bad weirdoes tend to be older, but not always; and good weirdos tend to be younger, but not always. I believe this has more to do with generation than age. It’s a cultural thing, not a biological one (and that gives me hope for the future). But still. I can usually (but not always) find my kind of people in a college crowd, but often don’t in groups with a median age of 50 and up (but again, not always). The latter aren’t filled with bad weirdos, they just aren’t filled with many good weirdos, often not even one.
Audiences who want me to use off color language and poke fun at or ridicule religious stupidity or tell jokes based on your having seen every episode of Firefly? My kind of people. Audiences who become offended or hostile or tsk tsk me for any colloquialism or saying even one slightly off-color word, and who don’t even know what the Flying Spaghetti Monster is (and when told, voice the opinion that it’s offensive or immature and not something atheists should be promoting)? Not my kind of people.
But us weirdos are all familiar with fuddy duddies, and we don’t need a primer on how to spot them or why we don’t get along with them. I’m more interested in teasing out what makes the difference between the annoying or disturbing crazies and the good-company crazies like me and mine. (And the last two months have been unusual in the lack or low counts of fuddy duddies and bad crazies; but maybe I’ve just gotten really good at avoiding them, I don’t know. And even still, there have been a few.)
I think the solution comes from getting at the essence of the bad weirdos. In my experience their common features are
(1) delusionality (false beliefs, held with extreme certainty, despite weak or even falsifying evidence),
(2) poor self-reflectivity (they do not know themselves well, aren’t aware of their flaws or limitations or quirks, and may even be keen on denying them, big fans of the ego-defense, and likewise are not reasonably self-critical nor handle external criticism well even when it’s reasonable and fact-based),
(3) insensitivity (even when they are hyper-concerned about others, it typically isn’t other people in the room, with the result that they have low situational empathy and do not show an interest in others that they expect others to show in them)
(4) dysfunctional communicativity (when they are hurt or annoyed or disagree or have an important opinion or knowledge, they fail to communicate it, or do so in ways so oblique or inobvious they may as well not be communicating it, or communicate it but in an alarmingly emotional way that’s oblivious to the social dynamics of a conversation),
or (and this is the worst) both.
Good weirdos are not any of that. And I think that’s why I like them so much. They are communicative, sensitive, self-reflective (and thus self-knowing), and harbor very few delusions, and rarely any that are extreme. In fact, I suspect this is why they are weirdos and not “normal” (as society at large would define it). It’s certainly true for me. We have all been outcasts and nonconformists, because we were always skeptical, always critical of social norms and expectations, and self-reflective enough to know we were being asked to change ourselves (really, in fact, to deny or even destroy ourselves) to fit in, and we didn’t want to, because we liked who we are, or at least liked many of the things society didn’t like about us (we were still happy to fix or improve on everything else about ourselves as much as we were able).
In other words, we’re weirdos because we wouldn’t want to be anything else. Which means we are aware of what makes us weird, we are aware of how that doesn’t “fit in,” and we have done the math on that and concluded we’re better off that way. (I’ve found that the bad weirdos often are not aware of their weirdness and haven’t rationally or self-reflectively chosen it, and even when they have, it has been on the basis of delusions, or egotism or narcissism.) We merry few love each other’s company despite our differences, often because of them, because we all share these four features in common (communicativity, sensitivity, self-reflectivity, and low delusionality), and we feel reassured, our sanity restored, to know there are other such people out there in the world. They give us hope. And we enjoy getting to know them, counting on them, helping them, learning from them.
There is an even more fundamental quality that I think underlies the four features I’ve identified as being what I like about the good weirdo. And that’s rationality. The stereotype is to imagine a rational person as an unemotional one, a Vulcan. Boring. Endlessly analytical. Maybe even cynical (in the bad sense). But that’s a largely bogus stereotype. There is another tendency to equate rationality with conformity to social norms, such that someone who doesn’t conform to norms is “irrational” and if they’d just start acting normal and have normal interests and speak and dress normally then they’d be “rational” again. But that’s not what “rational” means, either.
To be rational is to draw conclusions (and thus form beliefs) with logical validity (i.e. without fallacy) from well-evidenced premises (which, in consequence, results in a highly consistent belief system anchored in reality). That’s it. This doesn’t mean you diagram everything and work up the syllogisms and perform a formal analysis or even fact-check everything. It just means you think clearly and well, you have (and constantly seek to develop) a good knack for spotting flawed thinking, even in yourself, and know how to draw a valid conclusion from the information you have. It also means you change your beliefs when the evidence changes your premises in a relevant way, and you care about making sure your premises are correct, a concern held in proportion to their importance (we fact check the less, the less important our being wrong is–this is simply a time management thing). And part of that desire to be sure is what leads us to expose ourselves and our beliefs and ideas to diverse people who might tell us about things we didn’t know. The intelligence of crowds…diverse crowds, smarter still; rational crowds, most of all.
Bad weirdos are irrational, in the real and proper sense of the term. Even when they in every other way conform to social norms; even when they go full Vulcan (especially then). Another feature of being a rational person, which bad weirdos likewise fail at, but good weirdos are typically far ahead of the curve on, is having goals and desires that are mutually consistent.
Obviously these things exist by degrees, and thus so does rationality. A completely irrational person never draws a single valid conclusion in their life. Most irrational people are not anywhere near such a total lunatic status. But they are irrational in enough ways, with enough frequency, that it begins to make them into bad company, even (often enough) a bad citizen. Rational people might be irrational about some things, some of the time, but not enough to matter, or at least matter all that much. And they will care about whether they are being irrational about something, at least something important. Conformity to the unreasonable expectations of others being one of those things.
Good weirdos are true individuals. They make themselves into who they want to be. The result is that they don’t act or think like the bulk of society expects them to, because they don’t want the same things as everyone, don’t have the same interests as everyone, and don’t conform to stereotypes. And above all, they understand that about themselves and thus respect it when they see it in others–and so they don’t expect others to conform to their expectations or interests or anything else, except those things that are truly necessary to a good society and thus truly reasonable to expect of others: (1) reasonable compassion, (2) reasonable honesty, (3) reasonable courage, (4) reasonable self-reflectiveness, and (5) reasonable skepticality (which is that attitude of a good skeptic, not just doubting everything but requiring beliefs and claims to be in proportion to the evidence and thus always questioning whether some belief or claim really is, before accepting it uncritically).
This is why they reject such social norms as “good” and “bad” words (context, not vocabulary, decides that), why they love getting drunk among the safety of good people and have no hangups about that, why they have a good sense of humor (maybe even a dark or perverted sense of humor, but always one that’s self-critical and sympathetic), why they can talk openly and frankly about sex, politics, and religion and still get a laugh or a smile from each other. Why they can be proudly nerdy or geeky and silly and loud all at the same time. And why I can always count on them.
Hail good weirdos all. You are truly my people.