HoboJacket’s Casual Classism: Ethical Humor and Objectifying the Homeless

Elite college students being snobby and idiotic isn’t really newsworthy, but a group of MIT students went above and beyond the standard this past week.

The students thought it’d be funny to give local homeless people jackets from Caltech, MIT’s rival, in order to “show the true value of a Caltech degree.” And then, to practice their coding skills, they actually made a website called HoboJacket where you can donate to do just that.

In a way, it’s a brilliant idea. The students get to practice valuable skills and diss a rival school while simultaneously performing a nominally charitable act. And then, just as Tucker Max did with his solipsistic Planned Parenthood donation, they and their defenders can claim that anyone who disagrees with any part of their methods doesn’t really care about the homeless, puts ideology before practicality, and, worst of all, can’t take a joke.

The criticism, of course, was plentiful. The students literally used homeless people as props to make a (fairly inane and classist) point, and while the joke was supposed to be at Caltech students’ expense, what it really accomplishes is objectifying homeless people. As Laura Beck at Jezebel wrote, “Being homeless already carries enough social shame, it doesn’t need your help. The barb at the end of the particular stick you’ve built is that homeless people are gross and dirty and making them wear clothes with rivals logos somehow degrades the logo.”

This, of course, is where a certain type of liberal comes out and protests that “Yeah well at least it’s getting them jackets/what are you complaining about/would you rather they went without clothes/if that’s what it takes to get people to donate then that’s just how it works.”

Raising money is hard. Duh. Sometimes gimmicks are necessary. Sometimes these gimmicks will be controversial. However, I believe that ethical humor is humor that punches up, not down, and I believe that if you can’t do something ethically, you shouldn’t be doing it. Leave it to someone who can.

And nevertheless, many non-profits and charities are able to solicit donations without exploiting existing social inequalities. If you really believe that you need to use marginalized people as props to attract attention to your cause because “that’s just how it works,” that probably says more about you than it does about the psychology of charitable giving.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that we objectify and dehumanize the homeless. A research study that I was coincidentally assigned to present in one of my neuroscience classes yesterday comes to this conclusion*. The researchers scanned people’s brains with an fMRI machine as they looked at photos of different types of people–the elderly, the rich, the disabled, the homeless. Only for homeless people and drug addicts did the medial prefrontal cortex–a part of the brain that activates when analyzing people as opposed to objects–fail to activate.

Before you rush to give this some sort of evolutionary explanation, remember the way our brain functions is not set in stone by genetics and biology. We are probably not born viewing homeless people as any different from other kinds of people. That’s something we learn, and that’s something to which the brain adapts. And even if we were born that way, the cool thing about being a sentient being is that you can choose to override the signals your brain sends you. That’s why people can choose to be celibate, go on hunger strikes, become doctors and treat sick people, and overcome “natural” fears like snakes and heights.

My point in discussing this study is not to excuse the MIT students’ actions by claiming that they were compelled to do what they did because that’s the way their brains function. Rather, it’s to show that this is not an “isolated incident,” as people love to claim when someone does something insensitive and awful. The objectification of homeless people is real and supported by evidence, so casting this as a silly college prank is inaccurate and socially irresponsible.

Although the students initially dismissed criticism of their project by comparing it to Facebook’s origins as a tool to objectify women (an overly ambitious comparison, I’d say), they eventually understood what they did wrong, apologized, and took the site down. Honestly, that’s great, and they deserve credit for listening to their critics.

But I still wanted to write about this because, as I mentioned, it’s not an isolated incident. This particular type of prank might be, but the prejudice inherent in it is not. It’s worth discussing. It sheds light on how we view the homeless, which should in turn inform how we attempt to help them.

Of course, in my view, donating clothing to homeless people is kind and important but does not address the roots of the problem. The problem, unfortunately, is structural, and we can’t really talk about homelessness without talking about the pervasive economic inequality that our society has.

*Harris, L.T. & Fiske, S.T. (2006). Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuroimaging responses to extreme out-groups. Psychological Science, 17(10), 847-53.

Dear Northwestern Administration: Wake Up

I have a letter to the editor of the Daily Northwestern today. If I seem kind of angry, that’s because I am. 
Dear Editor,
Today I learned that Alyssa Weaver, the Weinberg junior who passed away last week, took her own life.
I didn’t know Alyssa. I could’ve, though, because she was going to move into my apartment when she returned from studying abroad. We’d chatted on Facebook a few times. I had no idea how much we had in common.
Because, here’s the thing. Her tragic story was very close to being mine, as well.
I’ve had clinical depression since I was 12 years old. I didn’t know it until the end of my freshman year at Northwestern, by which point it had become so serious that I became reclusive, miserable, exhausted, and preoccupied with the thought of taking my own life.
I went to CAPS. I got my twelve free sessions. My therapist was kind and supportive but never screened me for depression or any other mental illness. After the sessions were over, I was no better, had no idea what to do next, and deteriorated even more.
The only reason I’m here now is because, thankfully, the school year ended right then. I went home to my family, and I am privileged enough to have a loving, supportive family with good insurance that covers mental health. I saw a psychiatrist and started taking antidepressants. I recovered, for the most part, although even now I live in the shadow of the knowledge that depression as chronic as mine usually comes back.
I’ll be blunt. The state of mental health services on this campus is absolutely unacceptable. We have too few staff members at CAPS. We have no orientation program on mental health. There are still faculty members at this school–I will not name names–who refuse to accept mental health-related accommodations provided by Services for Students with Disabilities. Unlike virtually every other top-tier school and even many high schools, we have no peer counseling service, although I have been trying to start one for a year and a half. There just aren’t enough resources.
The only reason we have campus events about mental health at all is because of NU Active Minds, an amazing student group that’s still fairly new. But they should not be doing this work on their own, and there’s only so much they can do.

Dear Northwestern administration: Wake up. Stop building $220 million athletic complexes. Start spending just a bit more of that money on the mental health services your students desperately need.

I have fought tooth and nail to beat my depression and to find a supportive community here at NU. It breaks my heart that some of my fellow students have been unable to win that battle.
How many more Wildcats will we have to lose before the administration starts taking mental health more seriously?
Miriam Mogilevsky
Weinberg senior
Director of NU Listens

Why Northwestern Needs an Orientation Program on Mental Health

Note: This post is about stuff going on at my school, Northwestern University. But it’s relevant for anyone who cares about mental health and student activism.

[Content note: depression and suicide]

A little over three years ago, I arrived at Northwestern as a freshman completely unprepared for what was about to happen.

I don’t mean the difficult academics, the new social structure, or the challenges of living away from my parents, although those certainly had a learning curve.

What I mean is the intense stress I suddenly had to deal with, the complete lack of a support system, and the shame and stigma of admitting “weakness” or “failure.”

As soon as I got to campus, I went through a series of mandatory orientation programs. There was one on sexual violence, one on drugs and alcohol, one on diversity, and a few others. There was no orientation program about mental health and illness, despite these statistics:

  • Over one year, 30% of college students reported being “so depressed that it was difficult to function.”
  • 18% of students report having “seriously considered attempting suicide.”
  • Over one year, 44% of students reported that academics were “traumatic or very difficult to handle.”

This is serious stuff. And at Northwestern itself, a survey showed that a third of students had sought treatment for mental health, and that NU students report more distress and higher levels of depression than the national average for college students. (Unfortunately, I can’t cite this because I’m not sure if that document is public, but I assure you that I have seen it myself.)

It’s easy to shrug your shoulders and say that college students are adults and should be able to deal on their own without being taught how to recognize the signs of a mental illness and seek help for it. But there are two issues here: 1) the stigma surrounding mental illness and the treatment thereof is still severe, and 2) many of us are taught to assume that this is somehow “normal.”

I fell into that trap my freshman year. Crying because I got B’s was “normal.” Wanting to overdose on pain meds to avoid my journalism homework was “normal.” Spending hours daydreaming about dropping out and going home was “normal.” Having no real friends at school after nearly a year was “normal.” If not statistically normal, at least “expected” or “deserved.”

We, as students, need people to tell us that none of this is “normal” and that living with this is not necessary.

So, Northwestern’s Associated Student Government is doing one of its periodic giving-away-free-money things to anyone who can come up with a good idea for how to use $10,000.

Last time, they offered $5,000, and the winning idea was installing WiFi on the Lakefill, which is a sort of park/pretty area where our campus meets Lake Michigan.

These are the sorts of projects that tend to win these grants. They’re “cool,” appealing to everyone because everyone will benefit from them. They don’t dredge up any uncomfortable issues. They don’t make any meaningful change.

This is why it’s especially significant that a group of Northwestern students has started a campaign to win the $10,000 for a more pressing cause: implementing an orientation program about mental health for freshmen.

A program like this is extremely important and would accomplish a variety of goals.

First of all, it would provide every single freshman with information about basic mental health and how to get help at Northwestern. It’s shocking to me how many people don’t even know what kinds of services our counseling center offers, or the fact the Women’s Center offers 52 free counseling sessions to people of all genders. Some students find this information out for themselves, but when you’re already struggling just to get through the day, it can seem like an insurmountable burden. Add to this the fact that most people don’t really know how to recognize when they (or a friend) needs help, and you’ll see a clear need for an orientation program like this one.

Second, it would show students that mental health is something we care about at Northwestern. Because, to be painfully honest, that was not an impression I got when I came here. Although Northwestern’s Active Minds chapter has really helped change the conversation over the past year or so, mental health is still not something that people really talk about or take seriously. People brag about how little sleep they get. When I talked about having extreme anxiety because of my journalism assignments, people said I’d “get over it.”

Although things are starting to improve, our counseling center is severely understaffed and the staff-to-student ratio is worse here than at most other comparable schools. (Again, can’t cite because I’m not sure if those documents are public.) We have no peer counseling service, although I’ve been trying in vain to start one for a year and a half now. All of these things suggest to me that the leadership of this university cares more about building $220 million athletic complexes and $32 million visitors’ centers than about providing for the well-being of its students–who, by the way, are paying large sums of money and putting themselves under incredible stress for the privilege of attending this university.

And besides that, the academic pressure is intense and the competitive, pre-professional atmosphere at this school doesn’t really foster an environment in which mental health is a Big Deal. An orientation program like this would help set a different tone.

Third, it would provide students with an opportunity to start talking about mental health. That’s not something many of us did before college, really. Although I had taken psychology classes and was dimly aware of the existence of diagnoses like major depression and generalized anxiety, I’d never really gotten to talk about things like that with people before.

And remember that some students come from environments where evidence-based mental healthcare is not really accepted. In my family, we never ever discussed mental health at all, and I have friends here whose parents subscribed to pseudoscientific theories and treatments. Many of us, myself included, did not know a single person who was openly diagnosed and/or in treatment for a mental disorder until we got to college.

An orientation program that includes a substantial discussion component would allow students to actually start a dialogue about mental health before school has even started. Some might choose to reveal personal struggles, and their peers would learn that mental illnesses are really not that rare, and that people who have them are not that different from people who don’t. The potential that this has to dispel stigma and improve lives is immense.

If you are a Northwestern student, I urge you to visit this page to learn how to ask ASG to spend this money on an orientation program about mental health.

If not, please consider advocating for similar programs at your own school or alma mater.

More On Depression Origins and Parenting

Last week I wrote a piece called “Onset,” in which I described the way I first became clinically depressed about nine years ago. That was the first time I’d ever written about that or told anyone other than a few close friends, so the many positive responses I got were really encouraging. One commenter responded and asked a bunch of questions. My answers turned out to be really lengthy and interesting to write, so I thought I’d share the comment and the response here.

“Miriam, I read this post on Sunday and cannot stop thinking about it. I have never felt depression personally and cannot truly relate, but I have a young daughter and so your experience had a profound impact on me. Thank you so much for sharing.

“Do you think that one can be predisposed to having depression and thus be more vulnerable to the comments of others? Do you think that your mother could have predicted the impact her words would have on you? Could she have done something following that discussion to minimize the impact and alleviate the burden you felt? What do you think parents can do to help a child build his or her self-worth and confidence?

“I really hope you do not mind my asking all these questions. Your insight would be much appreciated.”

And here’s what I said:

Hey there,

Thanks for reading and don’t worry, I don’t mind the questions. I’ll try to answer them one at a time:

Do you think that one can be predisposed to having depression and thus be more vulnerable to the comments of others?

Yes, absolutely. Research in the field is rapidly coming to this conclusion. Depression is partially genetic, and researchers have started identifying certain genes that may be involved. One particular genetic variation, for instance, has no effect in the absence of significant life stressors, but if youdo have them, your risk for depression suddenly shoots up relative to people without the genetic variation who are experiencing comparable stressors. A phenomenon like this is called a gene-environment interaction, and such phenomena are at the forefront of research in the field right now.

Aside from that, there are other ways to be predisposed to or at risk for depression. Being poor. Being queer. Being female (although this is arguable, because research suggests that men simply underreport/do not recognize their depression). Being a college student. Having other mental illnesses, including substance abuse.

Furthermore, people who don’t learn good coping skills are more likely to respond to stress with depression and anxiety. I was one such person.

If you’d like more information about this and/or links to specific research, let me know!

Do you think that your mother could have predicted the impact her words would have on you?

No, I don’t think so. Although her mind is similar to mine in many ways, in this case, she probably either thought that I wouldn’t take her seriously, or else that her comment would light a fire under my ass, so to speak, and motivate me to do better in school without actually making me extremely anxious and depressed. Furthermore, my mother was also always very anxious about school when she was young, and she seems to think that that’s “just how things are.” As in, it’s unavoidable anyway, we just have to suffer through it, and so on. And that segues right into your next question:

Could she have done something following that discussion to minimize the impact and alleviate the burden you felt?

She could’ve, but I don’t think she knew/thought anything was out of the ordinary. I must’ve looked a lot like her own teenage self, to her. Had I had the communication skills of an adult, I could’ve said something like, “It would be really helpful to me if you don’t talk to me about my grades and trust that I’m doing my best,” or “It really scared me when you said that I’d have to quit the Nutcracker and I think it was unfair of you to say that.” But I was 12. I didn’t learn how to talk this way for another 8 years.

If she realized that something was wrong, she could’ve taken me to see a counselor, reminded me that she will love and value me regardless of my grades, told me that my grades are not the measure of my entire worth as a person, and so on. But given the situation, I’m not sure that she could’ve known to do that.

What do you think parents can do to help a child build his or her self-worth and confidence?

Good question. Lots of things! While it’s important for children to do well in school, school also isn’t all there is. What would’ve happened to me if I’d failed to get straight A’s? I wouldn’t have gone to Northwestern, probably. So I would’ve gone to an awesome liberal arts college or a good state school instead. No big deal. My parents didn’t realize that this was an acceptable path, though, so they really emphasized the damn grades.

Also, research generally shows that the best way to build confidence and self-esteem in kids isn’t to steadfastly insist that they “think positively” and “have good self-esteem” and all the other things that are done by schools and parents now. The best way is to let them do the things they love, get better and better at them, and feel secure in the knowledge that they have things to do that they love and are good at. Another good way is to teach them that their worth lies not in their performance on arbitrary culturally-sanctioned tasks like school and sports, but in their ability to be good people, in their willingness to work hard and try things, in their curiosity and their urge to ask good questions, and so on.

Of course, you have a limited ability to control what messages your children receive from the world outside of your family (although you can help by choosing which neighborhood to live in, which schools to send them to, which after-school activities to encourage them to do, etc.). However, which messages you send them yourself matters a lot. At the dinner table, do you ask them what grades they got on their homework, or what they learned that day? When they tell you about making new friends, do you ask which neighborhood the friends live in and what their parents do for a living, or what it is about them that makes them interesting to hang out with? When you’re shopping for clothes with your daughter, do you tell her to put that dress back because it doesn’t “flatter her figure,” or do you let her choose clothes that she feels comfortable in? When a boyfriend breaks up with her, do you reassure her that she’ll meet someone who likes her as she is, or do you tell her that she should’ve been thinner/happier/better-dressed?

These things matter.

Please take everything I’m saying with a grain of salt. I’m very young (21) and not a parent. However, I’ve been through a lot and I’ve thought these things through a lot. What I’m telling you are the things that I wasn’t taught as a child, and that I’m now trying to teach myself by slowly and painfully rewriting my thought patterns. Had I learned them as a child, when learning is so much easier, I think things would’ve gone very differently.

I hope this helps. Thanks for taking the time to ask and to wonder how you can be a better parent.


[Content note: depression]

In a few weeks, I will pass the nine-year anniversary of the onset of my depression.

I could figure out the exact date if I wanted to, because I know it was on Thanksgiving. But I won’t, because I don’t want that date to become frozen in my memory forever.

I don’t think most people can get it down to a single moment like that. In fact, there’s probably quite a bit that’s spurious about my interpretation of things. Really, my depression probably began with my genetics, or with the cognitive distortions that I already had even as a little kid.

But, that said, there was a moment after which everything changed. I’ve never really written or spoken about it until now.

I used to dance ballet. I was pre-professional and often performed with our local professional troupe, as did plenty of other kids and teens. That fall, I was cast in The Nutcracker, in the role of Clara. That’s the main role. It was an honor so momentous for me that all of the successes that followed it paled in comparison. I still remember standing in the center of that stage with over two thousand pairs of eyes all looking right at me. I will never forget. I will never experience a feeling like that again.

That year, I was in seventh grade. School was becoming challenging for the first time, and I was starting to feel the stress that would become like blood in my veins for the next decade. There were honors classes now. There were actual papers to write. They seem so easy now, of course, but at the time I felt a little bit terrified.

I’d gotten a few C’s on tests, which was new for me. I wasn’t too concerned yet. Until that weekend.

Thanksgiving. We were driving up to northwestern Pennsylvania to see family friends. That drive was always beautiful; I sometimes miss it now. The Appalachian Mountains are underrated.

There were only a few weeks left of rehearsal before opening night of The Nutcracker. After Thanksgiving, there would be dress rehearsals and tech week. And then I would take the stage.

So I was in the car, me and my family. My little brother, now old enough to talk to me about science and girls, wasn’t even a toddler then. My little sister didn’t exist yet.

I mentioned the C’s on the tests.

My mom was appalled. She said something like this: “If you get another C on a test, you have to drop out of The Nutcracker.”

She can’t have been serious, now that I look back on it. She just can’t have been. It would’ve ruined my family’s relationship with the ballet company and I’d probably never be allowed to perform again. It was just ludicrous, a punishment inconceivable in severity for me.

But that possibility didn’t even occur to me. I took her at her word. At that moment, everything changed.

I felt that I had lost all sense of control over my life. Something so important was suddenly jeopardized by random numbers in red ink. My homework seemed to laugh at me.

I quite literally lost my mind. Not in the sense of “going crazy” as we think of it, but in the sense that my mind became an alien to me.

The things it did to me that year. I cried and cried and cried. On Sunday nights especially, as I dreaded going back to school. If I got a grade worse than a B at school, I suffered for the rest of the day, through the rest of my classes and then several hours of ballet, until I could come home, tell my mom about it, and be vindicated. She would tell me that it’s okay, I just have to do better next time, and I would nod and leave and probably cry more.

My entire sense of self-worth became contingent upon my parents’ approval, and their approval seemed to me to be contingent on those arbitrary marks on a report card. And although I’ve long moved on from grades as the markers of my worth, I remain shackled to the opinions of others–of my family especially.

It was the longest winter. The music I listened to that winter–mostly classical–still rings in my ears sometimes and reminds me. Everything was colored with those tears, that roiling anxiety in my stomach, the shame of being imperfect.

I was twelve years old.

After that school year, the Thing–I didn’t know what to call it then–mutated and grew. I gradually learned not to stress so much about school, a lesson that serves me well these days. But the Thing grabbed hold of everything in my life, tainted every relationship, sunk its ugly tentacles into every crevice it could find.

In high school the Thing mostly manifested as a preoccupation with the idea that people might not like me. In college, I stopped caring about what people thought and instead became convinced that my life is ultimately meaningless and that it doesn’t matter if I live or die.

The Thing has changed quite a bit since I first met it nearly nine years ago. For one, I call it depression now, as that is what it is. I know its signs and a few strategies that help keep it at bay.

It’s not that everything was good before that Thanksgiving in 2003, and it’s not that everything was terrible afterwards.

But that weekend was a bridge. It was a bridge between nonclinical dysfunction and a worsening, mushrooming psychopathology. It was a bridge between childhood and–if not adulthood, then something other than adolescence.

They say that we lose “innocence” when we have sex for the first time, or when we move out of the house or start paying for our own upkeep. I lost my innocence when I lost my mind.

I had pulled back the corner of the rug and finally seen what had been swept under it.

What was under it was terrible.