At the Students for Liberty International Conference over the weekend I heard and overheard several jokes and comments about how many weird participants were there. It was mostly good-hearted self-deprecation, but there was often a hint of concern. There was perhaps a subtle but sincere belief that, if libertarian ideas and the individuals and organizations at the event are to have an impact on the world, the oddballs need to be drowned out by normal people. I’m not so sure.
Of course any group that rallies around a particular interest or set of ideas will have it’s own vibe somewhat distinct from the “average” person in the world. (If you ever meet this average person, I’d be curious what he or she is like. I’ve searched for many years and have yet to meet them.) If insiders and outsiders alike view events like this as gatherings of assorted weirdos, that’s probably a sign of a vibrant, healthy, non-group-thinkish phenomenon. With libertarian ideas as the rallying point, all the better to have a broad swath of all that humanity has to offer in attire, personality, tastes and preferences; what a wonderful testament to the humane and universal character of the ideas.
If, on the other hand, there is a drive to get more conformity and less weirdness in order to look more like the mythical average person, such gatherings tend to end up either stale or cult-like. In the former case, a lot of social pressure to wear non-offensive clothing and behave in an average way can sap the energy and creative life out of groups of shared interests. I’ve seen churches like this. Everyone makes such a point to be normal – in part to prove to the world that believing what they do doesn’t make them strange, in part to prove it to themselves – that it’s like a bunch of Stepford wives. While it may make being a part of the group less risky, it doesn’t make it any more attractive to outsiders, and it certainly makes it more dull for insiders.
The latter and far worse result of the desire for normal is cult-like conformity. If nobody wants to be the weirdo who gives their “movement” a bad image by dressing out of fashion, everyone can end up wearing cute little matching suits. There are subcultures where everything down to facial hair is uniform. Not only is this creepy and off-putting to the outside world, but such pressure for aesthetic sameness seeps into the realm of the mind and grows into intellectual conformity, the death-knell of any social movement, especially one as radical and free as libertarianism.
The weirdness or non-weirdness of a group of people doesn’t seem to indicate much about their life and potential. It’s the sameness that does. If everyone is weird in the same way, you’ve got a closed off niche easily caricatured or ignored. If everyone is normal in the same way, you’ve got much the same thing. If you’ve got enough weirdos to make the normals feel surrounded by weirdos, and enough normals to make the weirdos feel like the minority they enjoy being, it’s probably a pretty exciting, interesting, dynamic and growing bunch united around some pretty powerful ideas.
I saw a lot of unusual looking and acting people at the event. They stood out because the majority of participants looked pretty normal and acted pretty sophisticated. I took both of these to be wonderful things, and I hope those commenting on the need for less weird were poking fun more than seriously hoping to change the culture and weed out the oddballs. The range of religions, styles, personalities, persuasions, motivations and behaviors in that room were a beautiful testament to the breadth, depth, and life of the ideas of freedom. Bring on the weird. May it never die.