Call of the weird

Film-maker Louis Theroux has written an insightful article for the BBC website about society’s view of weirdness and his experience of meeting out-of-the-ordinary people.

He suggests that ‘weirdness’ is in the eye of the beholder as the idea of what makes someone ‘weird’ is just the result of our transient views of what is considered normal, regardless of how common the actual opinion or behaviour is.

Furthermore, he notes that ‘weird’ behaviour is often understandable if you put yourself in the person’s shoes.

Though it’s been helpful as a kind of short-hand for the sort of stories I do, the term “weirdness” actually does a disservice to the people I cover. Looking closer at what seemed – at first hand – the oddest of behaviour and I’ve always found a kind of logic.

I was recently reading a book of neurological essays called Phantoms in the Brain, which had an introduction by neurologist Oliver Sacks. He discussed brain disorders with symptoms that to me seemed very weird indeed – patients who don’t recognise their own limbs as belonging to them, for example, or who sometimes think one side of their body belongs to someone else.

But these are, he says, “quite normal defence mechanisms” which the unconscious uses to make sense of the world. “Such an understanding removes such patients from the realm of the mad or the freakish,” he continues, “and restores them to the realm of discourse and reason – albeit the discourse and reason of the unconscious.”

It’s interesting that Theroux makes a connection between people considered ‘socially weird’ and those considered ‘clinically disordered’.

There’s a been an ongoing debate in psychiatry about the extent to which particular psychiatric diagnoses are influenced by social perceptions of certain behaviour and the wish to classify them as different.

For example, people will regularly talk about “the mentally ill” as if they were a coherent group (e.g ‘these health reforms will affect the mentally ill’) but almost never talk about “the physically ill” in the same way.

We know that mental illness is not a cut-and-dry affair. Psychosis, for example, is found on a continuum with everybody having psychosis-like experiences to some degree.

People diagnosed with psychotic disorders just have very frequent or intense experiences that cause them distress or impairment. The rest of us hardly notice them or aren’t bothered by them if they do occur.

In other words, the odd beliefs and behaviours of the ‘weird’ are just part of life’s rich tapestry.

Theroux ends by saying that “weird beliefs” never stood in the way of him making a human connection, which is another way of saying that we classify people are weird to put unnecessary distance between ‘them’ and ‘us’, when in reality, there is only us.

Link to article ‘Weird, or just in search of meaning?’.

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