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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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.

[storytime] How I Quit the Senior Thesis

Ever since I was little, I held a belief shared by many gifted kids–gifted kids who grow into overachieving teenagers and then sleepless college students and then budding doctors, lawyers, engineers, researchers, businesspeople, or just those legions of people who wear tailored suits and work in tall office buildings in lower Manhattan and do stuff with money on computers or something.

That belief was this: you must do everything you are capable of. Anything less than that, and you’re “selling yourself short.”

You must participate in every science fair. You must take every honors class. You must play every sport your body can reasonably perform. You must accept every social invitation you are offered. You must matriculate at the most elite college to which you are accepted. You must have as many majors and minors as you can fit into your schedule, and you must have as many leadership positions you can get yourself accepted for.

So last spring I applied and got into the honors program in psychology. This meant that I would spend my senior year designing, carrying out, and writing up my own research study. At the time I was still under the impression that I wanted to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology, so this was obviously something I felt I should do.

I was at least mildly excited about it, at first, or at least made a good imitation of being excited. I don’t remember which it was anymore.

But in any case, things soon deteriorated. I discovered that I would not be able to do the study I originally designed about the stigma of mental illness–a topic I care deeply about–because none of the faculty members who study it were able to advise my project for various reasons. I tried to find a different lab to work in, but literally every single professor whose work I found interesting–and there are quite a few–was either already advising too many other honors students or had a requirement that you needed to have worked in their lab first or whatever.

So I ended up in a lab that deals with something I knew little about and that had very little relevance to my future career–cultural neuroscience. Fascinating stuff, but difficult and unrewarding. I couldn’t understand half the words that came out of my adviser’s mouth. What little willingness I had to go through with the program faded away. But still, I did not quit it.

The reasons I gave myself and others for not quitting are interesting mainly due to their blatant inaccuracy:

  • I felt that the department would be annoyed with me, but that’s silly since I was told I could withdraw at any time, and besides, if I quit that would free up resources for others.
  • I worried that this would somehow hurt my chances for admission into graduate school, which is even sillier because I’m applying to do a masters in social work, where nobody will care about my lack of research experience (particularly not in cultural neuroscience).
  • My parents told me not to, but so they did with journalism, and I quit that anyway and never looked back.
  • And, perhaps most importantly, I thought that quitting would make me a failure, even though that’s just obviously false.

As it turns out, what it came down to wasn’t any logical reason, but rather a sense of obligation, an invisible hand shoving me forward into doing things that I have no interest in and that bring me little or no benefit.

It is incredible to me how powerful that force was. I have always stubbornly persevered when it comes to getting the things I want, but apparently not getting things I don’t want is a different story.

Several agonizing weeks went by and then The Weekend happened. The Weekend was this past weekend. I saw an amazing speaker talk about microaggressions. I spent hours with friends. I laid around in bed in the mornings. I had a friend visit–someone I care about deeply and am now proud to call more than just a friend.

And at one point, I was sitting in the living room looking at my two bookshelves, which are full of unread books that are calling my name. (A small sample: When Everything Changed, Microaggressions, Outdated, Delusions of Gender, Sex at Dawn, and Thinking Fast and Slow.) I often wonder when I’ll be able to read them. But this time, for some reason, the question took on a new urgency: Seriously, though, when the fuck am I going to read these amazing books?

And it hit me that for the first time, academics doesn’t have to define me anymore. It doesn’t have to be My Thing. I don’t have to throw myself into the work to forget the fact that I have no real friends and no actual meaning to my life, because suddenly, I do.

I have new friends all over the country who are quickly starting to feel like old friends. I have my writing and this blog, which is growing in popularity and bringing me even more good friends and interesting people to talk to. I have the work that I do with sexual and mental health–I could write a whole post about the projects I’m working on and how much they mean to me. I have a new partner I adore, who supported me through this decision rather than pushing me to do and be everything.

This city, this city I used to hate so much, is growing more beautiful and homey to me every day. We spend our weekends out in its streets and thrift stores and cafes and apartments. As the weather grows colder, my heart grows warmer.

The thing is, I can do and be a whole lot of things. If I really wanted to, I could do this thesis. (I could also get a PhD, which I recently decided not to–a decision that parallels this one in many ways.) In the grand scheme of things, a year is not that long of a time to do something I don’t like and don’t need (assuming, of course, that my mental health would survive the year-long onslaught, which I doubt).

I could toil away at it and add another line to my resume, not because this will help me get into a social work program or accomplish any of my actual goals, but just so I could feel a little bit smarter and more accomplished.

But why?

Life is just too fucking short.

It’s too short for this kind of crap.

And so I quit.

You’re a Racist

And a sexist, and probably a homophobe, too.

But it’s okay, so am I.

In fact, research shows that almost everyone shows signs of prejudiced attitudes. The Implicit Association Test, a psychological test designed to measure the strength of subconscious associations that people have, suggests that even people who openly profess not to be racist or sexist actually are, deep down.

When you take an IAT, you use a computer program to categorize words into two different categories, usually by pressing one of two keys as quickly as possible. For instance, the categories might be “Black” and “White,” and the words you have to categorize might be either pleasant or unpleasant in nature–such as “safe” and “unsafe.” In one round, you’ll be asked to categorize the pleasant words as “black” and the unpleasant words as “white,” and in the next round you’ll do it the other way around. (It’s actually a bit more complicated than that, but you get the idea.)

The software measures how long it takes you to press the right key to categorize each word, and research shows that people are quicker to categorize unpleasant words as “black” rather than “white.”

IATs are extremely valuable tools for psychological research. They’ve been used to study stereotypes and prejudice in all sorts of categories, including race, gender, weight, and others. The IAT seems to be difficult (if not impossible) to fake or “game” in any way. You can try it here.

There’s other evidence aside from the IAT that suggests that prejudice is shockingly common and deeply ingrained. You know that racist trope about not being able to tell people of another race apart? Well, apparently, that begins at the age of nine months. A recent study shows that while five-month-old babies could still distinguish faces just as well whether they belonged to their own race or to another, by nine months, they had become much better at distinguishing faces of their own race.

I don’t know if effects like these are caused by nature, nurture, or a mix of both (probably the latter). There’s evidence that prejudice is taught to us by society, but there’s also evidence that it’s an inborn trait that we evolved in order to distinguish friends from foes.

However, even if prejudice is completely biological (which I doubt), it doesn’t really matter. In addition to our tendency to sort people into groups, we’ve also evolved brains that can override our basic instincts. We are capable of going on hunger strikes for a cause, resisting the urge to have sex with someone we find attractive, overcome phobias of heights, snakes, and elevators, and ignore our natural revulsion for blood and disease and become doctors.

There’s no reason, then, that we should not also be capable of unlearning prejudice.

Research like this is why I think that we should take some of the stigma away from words like “racist” and “sexist.” Most people don’t want to be branded as bigots, even if they knowingly hold some attitudes that are bigoted. So the response that most people will make when accused of racism or sexism is “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT OF COURSE I’M NOT A RACIST/SEXIST SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE BLACK/WOMEN.” The response should really be, “Wow, I guess I haven’t really worked on getting rid of my prejudice.” After all, prejudice is something we all have at least a little bit of.

We should acknowledge that fact rather than pretending otherwise. Even people who write constantly about bigotry and how to end it–such as me–hold subconscious (or even conscious) bigoted attitudes. The difference between people who care about social justice and those who don’t is not that we’re not bigoted at all and they are; it’s that we consciously work on correcting our bigoted views and they do not.

For instance, when I’m walking down the street at night and I see a black man and I involuntarily get scared, I force myself to ask why. And whenever I ask myself that, the answer is always that I’m scared because I’ve been taught to be scared, not because there’s anything to be scared of. And I don’t cross the street to the other side.

So when you realize that your mental image of a scientist is always a man, or that you feel disgusted when you see a fat person on the bus, or that seeing a man holding another man’s hand or wearing a dress (or both!) makes you uncomfortable, don’t just let that feeling be. Don’t assume that your feelings are always true. Question them, and you might be surprised at what you find.

We are all bigots in some ways. But some of us are more bigoted than others.

“Traditional” Morality and Anti-Porn Arguments That Fail

So the Republicans have added a section to their official party platform that calls for a crackdown on pornography.

Whereas previously, the GOP platform had only addressed child pornography, the new language reads: “Current laws on all forms of pornography and obscenity need to be vigorously enforced.”

Although this sentence does not technically suggest a push for more regulation, the “anti-pornography activist” (I’m giggling) quoted in the Reuters piece I linked to claims that Romney has promised to somehow increase the use of blocking software to combat internet porn.

I have no idea how he would do this, and I doubt that a Republican-led White House would manage to crack down on porn given that most reasonable people agree this is a ridiculous thing to be spending time on right now.

However, I want to examine some of the ludicrous things that have been said by Patrick Trueman, the “anti-pornography activist” I mentioned. Trueman is president of Morality in Media, a religious nonprofit that seems intent on defining morality for the rest of us. About porn, Trueman says, “It’s a growing problem for men in their 20s….It’s changed the way their brain maps have developed. This is the way they get sexually excited.”

As usual, research appears not to be necessary here. I don’t even know what these “brain maps” are that Trueman is referring to; I doubt that he does, either. (To quote Hunter from the Daily Kos: “I think ‘brain maps’ is the most science-ish thing said by any Republican in at least a week, so there’s that. Now if we could just get them to believe in ‘climate maps’ we’d be getting somewhere.”) And it’s interesting how he thinks that porn is a bad thing because it’s supposedly harmful for men specifically. What about women? Do we even exist?

A press release from Morality in Media does seem to mention some actual research:

Research shows that children and adults are developing life-long addictions to pornography; there is a very substantial increase in demand for child pornography because many adult-porn users are finding that they are no longer excited by adult images; on average four out of five 16 year-olds now regularly access pornography online; 56% of divorces cite Internet pornography as a major factor in the breakup of the marriage; girls consuming pornography are several times more likely to engage in group sex than those who do not; significant and growing numbers of men in their twenties are developing “porn-induced sexual dysfunction.

No citations are provided, so I can’t vouch for any of this. I would be rather surprised if all of these findings came from research universities or other independent-ish sources, though.

It’s interesting that anti-porn crusaders always cite the fact that pornography can be addictive as proof that it’s Morally Wrong. Alcohol and nicotine are addictive, too, but they are legal–as they should be in a free society. They are also addictive in a much more physical and tenacious way than porn is.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if the bit about porn factoring into divorce is true. When romantic relationships break up, I’ve noticed, it seems pretty common to blame other things that are going on rather than the obvious: that the relationship itself just isn’t working. The couple just isn’t attracted to each other anymore. They’re not in love. Whatever. It’s not hard for me to imagine that in a failing marriage, at least one person might turn to porn for distraction or sexual release, and the other would be hurt and would cite that as a reason for the subsequent divorce.

Point is, causality is never easy to establish in cases like this.

I also find it interesting how the tone of this press release assumes that girls engaging in (safe, consensual) group sex is necessarily a bad thing, and how it likewise assumes that because people are getting bored of adult porn and are moving on to child porn (?!), the former should be cracked down upon as well.

In an interview, Trueman also said that men who watch porn for years before getting married end up being “dysfunctional sexually because their brain maps are changed. They enjoy what they’ve been doing for 10 to 12 years. Normal sex is not something that gets them excited.”

Again with the brain maps. It’s so difficult to debate these statements because they are never, ever backed up by research, so anyone who agrees with them can just trot out some anecdotal evidence and consider the argument won. So here’s some anecdotal evidence of my own: I know plenty of people who are fairly into watching porn, and they are not “dysfunctional sexually.”

I also wonder how many of pornography’s negative consequences are due to 1) its taboo nature; and 2) the dominance of exploitative, misogynistic, and otherwise oppressive forces within the porn industry, as opposed to the “immorality” of pornography itself.

Greta Christina wrote something wonderful about this over four years ago, and I will quote it here. Although she was referring to anti-porn arguments made by feminists, not Christian Republican men who want to run your sex life, what she said still applies:

I think anti-porn writers have a very bad habit of ignoring Sturgeon’s Law. They fail to recognize that, yes, 90% of porn is crap… but 90% of everything is crap. And in a sexist society, 90% of everything is sexist crap. I’ve seen some very good arguments on how most porn is sexist and patriarchal with rigid and misleading images of women… but I’ve never seen a good argument for why, in a world of sexist TV and movies and pop music and video games, porn should be singled out for special condemnation — to the point of trying to eliminate the genre altogether.

But I also think that pro-porn advocates — myself included — need to stop pretending that there isn’t a problem. We need to recognize that the overwhelming majority of porn — or rather, the overwhelming majority of video porn, which is the overwhelming majority of porn — is sexist, is patriarchal, does perpetuate body fascism, does create unrealistic sexual expectations for both women and men, does depict sex in ways that are not only overwhelmingly focused on male pleasure, but are rigid and formulaic and mind-numbingly tedious to boot. And we need to be trying to do something about it.

Read the rest of the post; it’s good.

I’ve seen porn made by the dominant industry forces, and it’s horrid in all the ways you would expect. But I’ve also seen porn made by individuals and by small, socially-conscious producers, and it can be really awesome.

One recent study shows that 70% of men and 30% of women watch Internet porn. Keeping in mind that these numbers are probably deflated because of the stigma that porn carries (some studies suggest up to 80% of women watch porn), that’s still a lot of people. It’s especially a lot of men. Are all of these people really addicted to porn and incapable of being aroused by their partners?

In general, I agree with the stance that Greta Christina outlines in her post that I linked to. That said, I’m much more receptive to anti-porn arguments when they’re coming from a feminist perspective than from a “traditionally moral” perspective. I have little interest in traditional morality. I think we should all have the ability to create our own morality, and that means allowing people to access and experiment with porn if that’s what they want.