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.