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.

Affirmative Action Rant

A few days ago, the Daily Northwestern published a column called “Affirmative Action Dangerously Shortsighted.” It was predictably awful and spawned 269 (mostly dissenting) comments as of now.

Some excerpts:

I oppose the use of affirmative action in college admissions, the workplace and essentially any other setting. I am pleased that Fisher had the courage to revive this discussion, given the almost certainty that our hypersensitive, obsessively-politically-correctsociety would be quick to brand any white person willing to challenge this biased system of admissions as racist. In its effort to remedy the lingering effects of a more racially segregated past where one skin color was preferred over another, affirmative action has become its own insidious form of discrimination where the preference is not for one skin color over another, but for skin color over merit.  And merit be damned as the country continues to self-medicate with affirmative action to relieve its guilt over a history of which most living today were not even a part.

[...]The presumed racism of upper-middle-class white people is drastically misaligned. In fact, today, in terms of direct statements of discrimination and disdain, one is more likely to hear disapproving sneers about “rich white people” than anything derogatory about minorities. There certainly is no shortage of people who identify Mitt Romney and “his people” as disgusting, horrible people who deserve no respect but rather a plethora of unflattering associations.

[...]UT rejected Abigail Fisher based on merit, but she says merit that was racialized – that is, merit categorized by racially motivated academic skews in a way that rejected Abigail in favor of lesser-qualified minority applicants with lower standards to meet.

I won’t try to pick apart all the baseless claims in this article; my friend Mauricio has done that quite well.

Here’s the thing. Nobody likes affirmative action. I would call it a necessary evil except I prefer to save the word “evil” for things like Todd Akin.

I don’t like affirmative action. But you know what I like even less?

That’s right, racism. (Total buzzkill, that.)

Racism has two definitions–the popular one and the academic one. The popular definition is that racism is disliking another person based on their race. By this definition, white people who dislike black people are racists, and black people who dislike white people are racists.

This is the only definition of racism that Zink seems to know.

The academic definition of racism is much more complex. It’s a system of societal inequality based on race, in which non-white people are not afforded the same opportunities for education, employment, housing, justice, or respect as are white people. By this definition, white people are racist if they support this system explicitly or tacitly. People of color, however, cannot be racist under this definition, because there is no structural oppression of white people in this society.

This–not the first definition–is what affirmative action is designed to address.

Although this system of racial inequality intersects with classism, or class-based societal inequality, people of color of any class still face certain disadvantages compared to their white neighbors. For instance, they are more likely to be pulled over (and beaten) by the police for “looking suspicious.” They are more likely to be followed around by store employees who are concerned that they’ll steal something. If they choose to keep their hair in an afro or wear traditional dress from their culture, they may be looked down upon in the workplace. Even their “ethnic-sounding” names can make it more difficult for them to get jobs. If that’s not discrimination, I really don’t know what is.

But where racism intersects with classism, the disadvantages are even more apparent. People of color are much more likely than whites to be poor, which means that they are much less likely to have access to good schools and jobs, be able to afford college, and live in safe neighborhoods. Poverty is thought to contribute to the disproportionately high incarceration rate for African Americans (along, of course, with racial profiling), because it means they’re much less likely to be able to afford legal counsel.

All of these factors–and so many more–make it more difficult for students of color to be accepted into universities, especially top-tier universities. All that stuff I did as a teenager that helped me get into college–extracurriculars, SAT prep classes, gifted summer camps, AP classes, a research internship in Israel–are things that a poor student of color is very unlikely to be able to access and afford.

That’s why we need affirmative action.

People like Zink keep complaining that whenever anyone speaks out against affirmative action, they get labeled either ignorant or racist. Nope. You could, for instance, make the argument that affirmative action should be based solely on class, not on race. I suppose you could even make an intelligent case against affirmative action in its entirety, although I haven’t personally seen one. But that’s not what this Daily column did.

If you make a coherent argument based on actual evidence, people may disagree with you, but they won’t call you ignorant or racist.

However. If you argue that affirmative action is unnecessary because there’s no racism anymore, then you’re ignorant, because racism is demonstrably still an issue.

This broken fire hydrant is the best visual representation of Mitt Romney’s privilege.

And if you argue that affirmative action is wrong because “I had this one friend who was like super qualified but didn’t get the job she applied for and some black chick got it instead,” then you’re racist, because you’re assuming that there’s no possible way “some black chick” could be more qualified than your one friend.

And don’t even get me started on Zink’s ludicrous assertion that people who make “disapproving sneers” about Mitt Romney are somehow being reverse racists. We don’t criticize Romney because he’s rich and white. We criticize him because he spews his privilege around like a broken fire hydrant.

Faith is not a Mental Illness

I’ve been seeing a disturbing tendency among atheists to compare religious belief to mental illness. Sometimes this comparison is made explicit, as in this article. Other times, however, the comparison is more implicit–for instance, when words like “crazy” and “delusional” are used to describe religious people or their beliefs (hi Dawkins).

These comparisons are inaccurate and offensive to both religious people and people with mental illnesses.

First of all, being religious is a choice. Being mentally ill is not. While it’s a bit arguable whether or not faith itself is a choice–I certainly can’t make myself believe in god, but perhaps others can–the existence and success of religious proselytism proves that choice is at least part of the equation. Only a completely ignorant person, on the other hand, would attempt to proselytize mental health (although it obviously does happen).

Regardless of whether or not you can choose to believe in god, you definitely get to choose whether and to what extent you observe a religion (unless you’re a child, but that’s different). People with schizophrenia don’t get to choose which hallucinations they have and how often. People with OCD don’t get to choose their compulsions. People with phobias don’t get to choose which phobias they have or how they manifest themselves.

Second, suggesting that religious people are mentally ill is sanctimonious and offensive. It insinuates that they are incapable of consciously and purposefully choosing to be religious, and that their religious beliefs are just as meaningless as a symptom of mental illness. It reminds me of when I used to bring up concerns with friends who would respond, “Oh, that’s not such a big deal, you just feel that way ’cause you’re depressed.”

As I mentioned, being religious is a choice. For most people, it’s a choice made with one’s own best interests in mind. Comparing that to a schizophrenic delusion is a wee bit condescending.

(Of course, delusions that are religious in nature do exist. Some people with schizophrenia believe that they are possessed by religious spirits of some kind, that they have spoken to god, or that they are the messiah. However, this is vastly different from the way most religious folks experience their faith, and is obviously a symptom of mental illness.)

Although I’m an atheist who kinda sorta wishes religion didn’t exist, the fact is that it does, and I refuse to believe that all of the billions of religious people in the world are just mentally ill. No, they’re onto something. It’s just not something that I’m interested in myself.

Finally, these comparisons trivialize the suffering that people with mental illnesses experience. The distinction between mental health and mental illness is not that mentally healthy people do not believe in supernatural things and mentally ill people do. The difference is that (most) mental illnesses interfere with the person’s functioning and make them feel, well, bad.

Religion, for all its flaws, often does the opposite–it provides people with community, teaches them to behave morally and charitably, and helps them cope with illness, death, and other challenges in life. (A caveat: I’m talking about religion at its best, not at its worst, and these same effects can be found elsewhere.)

So when you imply that the definition of mental illness is believing in things without evidence, you miss a lot about what it’s like to be mentally ill. Namely, you ignore the emotional pain, cognitive distortions, thwarted goals, ruined relationships, physical fatigue, and all the other things that are part of the experience of mental illness.

There are many interesting, intelligent, and non-offensive ways for atheists to argue against destructive religious ideas (for instance, here’s an example I read today). Calling religious people mentally ill is not one of those ways. Let’s put that kind of useless rhetoric back on the shelf where it belongs.

Urban Outfitters’ Possibly-Accidental Holocaust Reference

Aside from perhaps American Apparel, there might not be any clothing retailer that people love to hate more than Urban Outfitters.

This time, UO has angered the Jewish community by selling a t-shirt that seems made to resemble the patches that Jews were forced to wear on their clothes during the Holocaust:

Credit: Urban Outfitters

The Anti-Defamation League wrote a letter to CEO of Urban Outfitters explaining the uncanny similarity to Holocaust symbolism. Although UO itself hasn’t issued any sort of statement, the company that makes the shirt, Wood Wood, has. They replaced this shirt with a plain yellow one and explained that they had never intended to make a Holocaust reference:

As some of you are aware, several news sites have been writing about our “‘Kellog’ T-shirt, which features an image of a six-pointed star, allegedly similar to the yellow badge Jews were ordered to wear by the German nazis. First of all the graphic is not the Star of David, and I can assure you that this is in no way a reference to judaism, nazism or the holocaust.

While I’m obviously glad that they apologized to anyone who may have been offended and changed the shirt, I’m a bit confused as to how this happened to begin with.

Because here’s the thing–Wood Wood is a Danish company. That’s right, from Denmark. This is the same country that made an extraordinary effort to rescue its Jewish citizens from the Holocaust. Ordinary Danish citizens helped 8,000 Jews escape to Sweden after the Nazis invaded, and over 99% of Danish Jews ended up surviving.

This is particularly poignant if you think about how differently things went in many other European countries. Only 10% of Polish Jews, 12% of German Jews, and 25% of Dutch Jews survived the Holocaust.

Anyway, the point of this brief foray in Holocaust history is to show that the people of Denmark were once willing to put their own lives in danger to save their Jewish friends and neighbors. Today, meanwhile, a Danish company is apparently unaware of the symbolism in its design and mocks the Holocaust with a $100 cotton t-shirt.

I do understand that it’s completely possible–perhaps even likely–that this was completely unintentional. After all, not everyone sees a six-pointed star and immediately thinks “Star of David,” not everybody sees a yellow color and a patch on the chest and thinks “Jude.”

And that possibility brings up some difficult questions. How far should people go to avoid accidentally using Holocaust imagery and offending a ton of Jews? Are we being “too sensitive?” (And I should point out that Jews by no means agree on this. Granted, Jews never agree on anything.)

I can’t really answer those questions. However, I will say that based on UO’s history of culturally insensitive merchandise, I’m not necessarily as willing to give them the benefit of the doubt as I might be with another retailer. Come on, “Navajo Hipster Panty”? Who signed off on that?

Furthermore, it should be noted that the decision to take the six-pointed star off of the shirt was made not by UO, but by Wood Wood. UO seems intent not to learn from any of its mistakes and to continue producing merchandise that offends people, waiting until the inevitable uproar begins to remove said merchandise from the shelves. When will this stop? And, incidentally, when will UO also stop stealing indie artists’ designs, promoting anorexia, and denying collective bargaining rights to employees?

As I mentioned, this particular story does have a happy ending. The shirt is now being sold sans Holocaust-style patch, so it’s just a plain yellow shirt. Yours for only $100 at Urban Outfitters.

Islamophobia Does Not “Cause” Riots

So I was reading the current issue of Utne Reader (great magazine, by the way) and came across an article about Islamophobia, reprinted from Intelligence Report.

At was a good article, at least up until the third paragraph. There, I saw something that made my eyes want to pop out of my head, migrate to the author’s place of residence, and slap him in the face:

Recent news reports strongly suggest a spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes. In May 2010, for example, a bomb exploded at an Islamic center in Jacksonville, Florida. In August, a man slashed the neck and face of a New York taxi driver after finding out he was a Muslim. Four days later, someone set fire to construction equipment at the future site of an Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In March 2011, a radical Christian pastor burned a Koran in Gainesville, Florida, leading to deadly riots in Afghanistan that left at least 20 people dead. [emphasis mine]

No. No no no. First of all, unlike the first three incidents, burning a Koran is not an “anti-Muslim hate crime.” Last I checked, in America that counts as free speech, heinous as it may be. Second, Islamophobia may have caused the first three incidents, but it did not cause the fourth one. That one was caused by morons who chose to respond to a provocation in a violent way.

One of my biggest issues with liberal discourse on societal problems is its proclivity to diminish or erase entirely the concept of human agency. (Some) liberals talk as though society just makes people do things without them actually processing information and deciding how to act on it.

(Among more radical liberals, this lends itself to the belief that violent response to injustice is not only inevitable, but morally justified, even if innocent people are injured or killed in the process. See: Hamas apologists.)

Leaving aside the morality of the rioters’ actions, it nevertheless takes quite a few conceptual steps to get from American Islamophobia to Muslims killing people in Afghanistan. While one could reasonably assume that Islamophobia (along with a number of other factors, such as having a violent disposition) caused people to do things like bomb mosques, stab Muslim taxi drivers, and burn Korans, one cannot then jump from that to “Islamophobia causes people in Afghanistan to riot and kill people.” Just, no.

I should hope that it’s quite clear that moderating variables must be at play here. (Case in point: Jews have been subject to as much [if not more] racism and discrimination throughout history as Muslims have, but if we rioted and killed each other every time somebody did something anti-Semitic, there’d be none of us left. Do a Google search on “burning Israeli flag” and you’ll see how common this is, and don’t tell me nobody ever burns Bibles, either.) For whatever reason, the rioters in question chose not to respond to this incident by starting an initiative to educate Westerners about Islam, by simply ranting about it to family and friends, or by shrugging and moving on.

Instead, they chose to respond to a no-name dipshit burning a Koran thousands of miles away by killing 20 innocent people.

Clearly, the vast, vast majority of Muslims in the world did not react this way, just like most teenagers who happen to come into possession of a loaded gun do not immediately go shoot up a school. The few who do go shoot up schools have serious issues that go way beyond the fact that they have access to a gun.

Islamophobia is a serious problem and should not be swept under the rug. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. All humans have agency, and we should assign the same level of responsibility to the Muslims who rioted as to the Americans who provoked them.