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.

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

14 thoughts on “HoboJacket's Casual Classism: Ethical Humor and Objectifying the Homeless

  1. 1

    It’s a real “let them eat cake” moment. It was exactly like going to Planned Parenthood and handing out pamphlets on “How To Not Be A Slut.” It’s the moral equivalent of going to a food shelf and donating a box of kittens and puppies “so the Asians don’t go hungry”.

    Something interesting about the study — how did the people being fMRIed know the people they were looking at were homeless or drug addicts? What is it about the particular stereotypes associated with these people causes them to be dehumanized by the observer’s brain?

    The other thing in the article that caught my eye was this line: “Pan called HoboJacket a social experiment”. This is a classic trolling technique, an excuse used all the time to attempt to shut down criticism of deeply offensive behavior. I’m glad to see that the originators of this have shut it down — and I hope they find a way to leverage their upper-class tribalism er “intercollegiate sports rivalry” in to charity in a way that doesn’t punch people in the face when they are down.

    1. 1.1

      re: the fMRI study: unfortunately, despite reading the full article, I don’t know because they didn’t describe the photos. However, they had pretested them and used them in studies before, so perhaps they’re available somewhere.

      I agree with you completely on the “social experiment” thing. It’s just like calling something “just a joke,” except perhaps even more insidious because they’re trying to play it off like some valuable contribution to the field of psychology. Ugh.

  2. 2

    Better way to “use” the homeless…. set up the same donation website, only instead of “See how useless a Caltech degree really is” have the results be “Look how many homeless people are wearing XXX logo gear! What generous, thoughtful giving people XXX supporters must be, to reach out to donate.” Look at the response the image of the cop giving socks & boots to the homeless man in NYC has gotten, just circulating on Facebook. It’s quite possible to use viral marketing to STOP treating people as objects.

  3. Jon

    The Harris/Fiske fMRI study is interesting, and I think you’re right about the overall plasticity of signal interpretation. Wonder if the “low-low objectifiers” would experience mPFC “re-activation” after they had experienced controlled personal interaction with the people photographed? That seems testable, at any rate. Anecdotally, I’d say that I started to “see” homeless people very differently after having helped bring food to some of them for a few weeks. Might be fairer to say that I started to see them in the first place. Kinda like noticing a unfamiliar word 15 times in the week after you first pay enough attention to look up its meaning.

    Also, I know I’ll never see any addict the same way after having read the late David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.” Especially the “Poor Tony Goes Cold Turkey” section. One argument for requiring computer engineers to deal with good literature would be to ensure that their “empathy organs” get some (apparently much needed) exercise.

  4. 5

    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.”
    I don’t think it’s even that hard to get people to donate clothes. Every charitable organization I’ve ever heard of which accepts clothes has to stop taking them sometimes because they get too many.

  5. 7

    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.”

    That is, in fact, at the top of the comments below the linked apology. And I have to say, the apology itself is stellar – it’s a real model of how to do it right.

    (Great blog! Welcome!)

  6. 8

    Carlos, I’m not a cop. Never claimed to be one. I see you’re the grammar police tonight. And, I didn’t flunk out of school. I have a nice little BA in Political Science, and another in Military History, thank you very much. Sorry you wasted an entire rant on nothing. I’ll try and watche my spelling and sentence structure if that will help.

  7. 9

    Pretty sickening. The homeless were props in a prank, and would have received no help if there hadn’t have been a way to turn it into a way for snotty college kids to think they’re funny.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.