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.