How do Americans feel about eccentricity? Maybe it’s not fair to generalize. Nevertheless, I was recently researching the over-diagnosis and overmedication of Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which is a major problem in the United States, but not so much in the United Kingdom. Part of that is to do with how the respective health care systems are set up — as I’ll explain here later. But I do wonder if part of it is cultural as well.
This question has serious implications on the individual level. For instance, in the following TED Talk, Sir Ken Robinson tells a charming story about Gillian Lynne, the talented choreographer who deserves to be more famous than she is. As a child in the 1930s, before people had a name for ADHD, Lynne was taken to see a specialist because she couldn’t sit still at school. The doctor turned on the radio. And Lynne, upon hearing music, began to dance. “Mrs. Lynne,” the doctor said. “Your daughter isn’t sick. She’s a dancer!”
But imagine the doctor had said “your daughter has ADHD” and put her on a daily dose of amphetamines instead? Would she have discovered her talent? Would she have devised the choreography for the musical, Cats? Probably not.
There are societal considerations regarding eccentricity. In the third chapter of On Liberty (1859), “Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being,” the English philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote that:
In this age, the mere example of nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.
“The chief danger of the time,” Mill wrote. He was right. Then, as now.