When police brutally arrested 78-year-old Danny Lim in the Queen Victoria Building last November, smashing his forehead into the floor and cuffing him, the outrage was universal. Lim is famous for his roadside sandwich boards that range from the benign to the gently obscene. This particular one – “SMILE CVN’T! WHY CVN’T!” – was both. It had previously been ruled “inoffensive” by a magistrate. But that didn’t stop the muscled young cops fracturing Lim’s skull.
Lim is one of our few true eccentrics, a high-chroma gleam in our increasingly bland culturescape. For this he is beloved, but it almost got him chewed up by the great blandising machine we have created.
We think we’re all so different. Every second advertisement for mortgage brokers, dental implants or skiing holidays implores us to live authentically, create, be free. We’re all artists, everyone’s a creative. Artists are eccentric, right?
But increasingly, “eccentric” is a term of derision. Our cars are as indistinguishable as our politicians. Every new house, apartment and bus stop seems to come from the same digital design program. The range of acceptable behaviours, views, language and aesthetics is increasingly narrow and the world so created is increasingly, depressingly greige. Democracy was meant to nurture difference. How did it end up smothering it?
We tend to think of eccentrics as foolish dodderers who accidentally go to the shops in their pyjamas or put rubber gloves in the toaster. That trivialises their significance.
We are all torn between conformism and dissent, between safety and adventure. Eccentrics are those brave enough or other enough actually to live differently, heeding the call of creativity or conscience more strongly than the judgement of others.
And our cities, our collective homes, should preserve and protect such difference. The cities of history, with their intricacies and invaginations, their deep folds and deeper secrets, made the perfect habitat for the eccentric and so became the great centres of cultural production; the founts of creativity.
To me, even as a child, the urban eccentric always seemed a self-evidently good and enriching thing, a soft wind through the reeds of a culture, a strange penumbral light, a fresh declension. So I’m surprised, as well as saddened, by how all three of the great forces shaping our world – the market, the internet and Postmodernity – promised diversity but reinforced conformism.
First, the market. Free market thinking, as proselytised from the 1970s on by conservative and “new left” governments alike, promised choice. The market would offer a selection of banks, phone plans and superannuation as varied as types of shampoo. This justified the sale of so many public institutions – the notion that we’d be both more satisfied and better off. Competition would protect the little guy.
Hardly. Turns out we little guys can barely sift through the terms and conditions of every contract we’re forced to sign, much less diligently compare. So it’s still blind trust – only now, rather than government, it’s gouging privateers we’re forced to trust and the flimsy legal system that binds them. As for choice, even a cursory glance at how changes in airfares, bank charges or petrol prices ripple in an instant across all providers reveals competition’s real result is, if not actual collusion, a system of cutthroat conformity.
Market-forced sameness goes far deeper. As consumers internalise these forces, a broad-based self-censorship kicks in. We’re all on the hustle now, buyers but also sellers. Those lucky enough to have homes renovate and even purchase not according to individual taste but for the same-same Pleasantville the market desires. This collective insanity condemns us to dwellings that maybe no one hates but no one actually likes, either.
With developers, who make hundreds of these decisions at a stroke, the greigeisation is yet more pronounced. When the developer-mob decided “the market” wanted airless, low-ceilinged two-bedroom investor-grade apartments, that became what the market got. Where governments required anything more interesting, developers typically lobbied against it.
Lively cities, argued Jane Jacobs in 1961, are diverse cities. They need small blocks, mixed use, assorted eras and moderate (but not hyper) density. As planning became developer-led, these qualities vanished. Market freedom imperceptibly became banal market tyranny.
With cars, the sameness is marginally more defensible. Fifty years ago, cars came in a smorgasbord of shapes and colours – the finned Caddie, the square Ford Anglia, the round Baby Austin, the cute VW Beetle. Now, uniformly nipped and tucked, they’re all but indistinguishable. True, this reflects in part the aerodynamics of fuel-saving and the structural exigencies of safety, but market tyranny is evident too, not least in the increased uniformity of hue. Any colour as long as it’s black, white or silver.
Next, let’s consider Postmodernism, which crystallised from relativist and decentralising late-modern movements such as Situationism, the idea that truth itself is personally customised. On the one hand, in weighing all opinions equally, it undermined the authority of the expert – enabling deniers to regard climate change as a mere matter of belief. On the other, it enabled ultra-wealthy right-wing demagogues such as Donald Trump to gain popular appeal by seeming to subvert the very establishment on which they stood with an avalanche of “alternative facts”.
Together, these two prongs ushered in a post-truth world. Art, which had been in crisis since the advent of photography, was the first casualty. No one knew what the criteria were, who was any good or how to tell. No one knew whether a bucket of pee or a collection of crocheted seaweed was art or not.
Into the vacuum rushed the fallacy that art was simply message. As a critic insisted recently, “if it’s not dealing with climate change, it’s not art”. Art became politics, and politics, meanwhile, dissolved into a cacophony of ignorance where only the loudest voices – the wealthy or the mob-handed – cut through. The promised symphony of voices became little more than white noise.
All of which was intensified by the third great force, the internet.
Everyone would be heard, the internet promised. None would be marginalised. In fact, we’ve seen the catastrophic decline in public-interest journalism, education standards, democratic access, economic equality and freedom of expression and, among the cacophony of voices, a willing abandonment of reason.
Again, the result is a strident mob – the right-wing trolls and the tribulations of cancel culture – whose combined impact is to intimidate. Now, this fear is so thoroughly internalised even universities, charged with the discovery and dissemination of knowledge, sanction academics for voicing opinions and even for defending others’ right to do so. In the United States, as documented by FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression), such sanctions have skyrocketed, coming from the left and the right: one professor was sacked for criticising Israel, another for targeting “woke” culture. The terrible irony is cancel culture, while springing from a desire to accommodate difference and calling out hateful speech and conduct, can have the opposite effect, narrowing the range of permissible public utterance to a generalised inoffensive greige.
Why does it matter? Why, in these narrowing mental and physical landscapes – and especially as AI makes yet more homogenisation inevitable – should we venerate our eccentrics?
For a start, they may be right. Today’s eccentricities are often tomorrow’s orthodoxies. Like Galileo or Darwin, critics of the establishment are typically ridiculed by it for years before their views are accepted. Those eccentrics from the 1960s, derided in their time, include Dr Frances Kelsey, who discovered the dangers of thalidomide, Dr Rachel Carson, who wrote Silent Spring about toxic pesticides, and Jane Jacobs, who campaigned for irreplaceable heritage.
There’s also this. The skills of respectful disagreement, fundamental to any healthy democracy, include both respect and disagreement. The axiom misattributed to Voltaire (and occasionally abused) – “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – was never more crucial in its fundamental concept.
Even those gently utilitarian arguments also pander to market-mindedness. We should treasure divergent thinkers for themselves alone. Our public conversation should offer them succour and our cities shelter them, for they are our seers and prophets, seeds and flowers of our threatened cultural bounty, our last defence against the soul-sucking tyranny of cliché.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 24, 2023 as "In praise of eccentrics".
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