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.

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Argumentum Ad Third World: Or, “Think of the Starving Children in Africa” Redux

One way you know you’ve won an argument about social justice is when your opponent says something like, “YEAH WELL you don’t see people in the Third World whining about their preferred pronouns/racist Halloween costumes/the use of the word ‘retard’!”

There is a pervasive idea out there that people in the Third World only have Big Terrible Problems like poverty and genocide, and people in industrialized countries only have Stupid Silly Problems like getting toilet paper stuck on the bottom of their shoe or having to wait in traffic or whatever. There are, apparently, no problems between those two extremes in severity, and no problems are worth talking about besides the Big Terrible Problems.

“I wonder how many people identify as genderqueer in Somalia,” one Tumblr user declaimed. “Oh, wait. I forgot. Those people have actual problems.” Another made a list of “social justice issues that are extremely important” and “social justice issues that Tumblr users think are extremely important.” The former list contained poverty, human trafficking, human rights violations, and genocide. The latter contained white privilege, cultural appropriation, and gender pronouns.

A particularly egregious example of this was a recent cartoon in the Daily Northwestern, which was published in the wake of continuing conversations about racism on our campus:

The argument, of course, is simple: Look at you silly “social justice activists,” bitching about “racism” at Northwestern while people are dying on the South Side of Chicago.

While I will never understand privileged NU students’ utter fascination and obsession with Chicago’s South Side, I do understand where this argument comes from. It comes from the idea that these two types of oppression–poverty and murder versus microaggressions like racist costumes–are different not only quantitatively, but qualitatively. They are not different amounts of oppression; they are different types of oppression.

But really, they’re not. All oppression stems from the idea that some groups of people are worth less than others, that some people deserve fewer rights and less respect than others. All oppression relies on silence and ignorance to continue, and all oppression is based on the notion that the feelings of oppressors are more important than the rights, autonomy, and dignity of the oppressed.

As I mentioned when I wrote about transitioning from conservatism to progressivism, one of the main reasons I have the political ideology that I have is that I believe that psychological, sociological, and political phenomena are all interconnected. There is a connection between the white dude who calls Obama a “dumb n*****” and the bank that refuses to give a loan to a Black family. There is a connection between the person who shudders and crosses to the other side of the street upon seeing a Black man, and the cop who shoots and kills that Black man without provocation. There is a connection between the man who refers to rape victims as “lying bitches” and the man who rapes.

And the connection is this: all of these things continue because our culture prescribes ways for people to “be” and punishes those who don’t follow them, even though these ways to “be” involve factors that we can’t choose, such as race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. And then, Western societies impose these ways of “being” onto other cultures, whether through media, colonialism, or military interventions.

That doesn’t mean that all forms of oppression are equal, but it does mean that discussing which oppressions are “worse” than others is pretty pointless.  Besides, people in Third World countries definitely have problems that are less severe than poverty and genocide. To suggest that they do not is to suggest that they aren’t fully human, because, guess what–humans have all kinds of problems, whether they’re rich or poor or somewhere in between.

Oh, and by the way–unless you are actively working towards ending poverty, genocide, human trafficking, and so on, you lose all legitimacy when you make this argument. When I hear people who really don’t give a crap about social justice using argumentum ad Third World, I know that they’re not arguing in good faith. They’re just using this well-known derailing tactic.

And, in fact, most writers and activists I know who do work on large, global issues like poverty and genocide are also the ones who are most passionate about fighting microaggressions, because they understand that these things are all interconnected.

After all, even these “big” problems start when people allow themselves to view entire groups of people as “Other.”

There are many different ways to do activism, and they have varying levels of effectiveness depending on who does them and how. Some people are great at raising money. Others want to go build houses, teach, or grow food. Some work within political systems. Others educate their peers about how not to be a complete asshole to people of color, LGBT folks, and other marginalized groups. Some write. Others speak. Others make art. Some want to work in African villages. Others want to work in American cities.

You can argue about the effectiveness of one type of activism over another, but you can’t–at least, not in good faith–sit on your ass and demand that we focus on nothing but poverty and genocide.

Alternative Student Break: Helping Rich Kids Feel Good About Themselves Since 2007

This is my column for the Daily Northwestern this week.

This week, students from all over Northwestern will be applying for Alternative Student Break, a program that sends students to other parts of the country or the world to do volunteer work for a week. ASB is popular because it’s so hard to find anything negative about it. Traveling! Helping poor people! Making friends! What’s not to like?

I’ll concede that ASB is a great learning experience and a good way to bond with other NU students. It’s important to make yourself aware of the difficulties people and communities face elsewhere in the United States and in the world. However, I’d stop short of viewing ASB as some grand act of charity, which is the way that many students seem to view it.

First of all, as volunteer work goes, it’s not cheap. Domestic ASB trips usually cost at least several hundred dollars while Hillel’s trip to Cuba this spring costs a whopping $2,900. That’s probably twice as much as I’ve ever had in my bank account, and I’m comfortably middle-class.

It seems that many NU students assume that several hundred bucks for a spring break trip is small change. After all, chances are that many of the students who will spend their spring break on ASB in Kansas City or Pittsburgh will have friends vacationing in Paris, Madrid or the Caribbean. But given that you could just as easily volunteer at no cost right here in Chicago (not exactly free of its own problems) or in your hometown, one really has to wonder about the sense of paying to volunteer elsewhere.

More troubling than ASB’s price tag is the implicit assumption it makes about service work: that it’s something wealthy people do for poor people. This assumption may seem like common sense at first; after all, what are poor people supposed to do? Help themselves?

Yes and no. I do believe that those with the resources to help improve their society should do so. Sometimes it’s the richer people who have the time and money to do things like march in protests, call their representatives in Congress, donate to charity and go on ASB trips. But I think that the highest level of helping is to help others help themselves, and sometimes that means making a commitment that lasts much longer than a week. It means becoming a mentor to a child at risk of dropping out of school or volunteering at a job skills training center for unemployed people. It means starting a ripple effect by helping people raise themselves up, so that they will keep rising long after you’re gone.

Although throwing money at problems rarely helps, there are still ways to use money to help people improve their own lives. Microlending, which has really taken off in recent years, involves giving small loans to people in developing countries who want to start their own business and make it out of poverty. Loans can be as small as $25 and Kiva.org, one of the most well-known microlending websites, boasts of about a 99 percent loan repayment rate. It’s like giving to charity, except you get your money back.

But I get it. Giving some money to a stranger across the world doesn’t make nearly as cool of a story as spending a week rehabilitating abused animals. Nobody’s going to gaze at you in adoration because you gave $100 to a man in Tajikistan so he can buy seed and fertilizer for his farm. But that doesn’t mean you won’t have done a really important thing.

If you’re interested, NU even has its own microlending organization. It’s called LEND and it supports Evanston businesses. If I had several extra hundred dollars lying around, I’d invest it in this organization or in a Kiva loan. After all, when you take an ASB trip, a substantial amount of the fee you pay goes towards things like travel, lodging and food. What if you took all that money and invested it directly? Such an investment means that all the money you have to spend goes right to the people who need it most.

Just as ASB neglects the long-term view, it neglects the roots of societal problems, such as discrimination, ignorance and bad government policies. Are ASB programs helpful? Sure, to a certain extent, they are. But they treat the symptoms rather than the disease. The houses you build during your week on ASB may help people, but they do nothing to solve the problems that made those people homeless.

NU is quite an apolitical campus, but it still boggles my mind that many NU students love helping poor people so much but take so little interest in the government policies that keep those people poor. The sorts of changes our society would need to make to end poverty and make ASB trips unnecessary are much more far-reaching — and perhaps less compelling. These changes take years, and they include things like educating yourself and others, talking to members of Congress, starting campaigns and teaching your own children to vote intelligently and with empathy.

This is why I feel that ASB is really more about the students than about the people and communities they’re helping. It’s more about the students’ experience, their desire to learn about others, their need to feel helpful. To put it less charitably, it’s a way for rich kids to feel good about themselves.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t go on ASB trips. Go ahead and go. Have a great time. But always remember that your responsibility to the world doesn’t end after a week of building houses or tutoring kids.