“Portraying homeless people as inevitably or essentially disgusting serves to dehumanize those who are merely struggling to survive,” say scholars of homelessness.
An article published on July 14 by Mother Jones produced widespread anger. The piece, written by Kevin Drum, began by discussing newly published research from two political science professors on public perceptions of homeless people. Drum addressed the seemingly contradictory findings that people generally support aid to the homeless but also favor banning panhandling and sleeping in public.
Drum’s controversial passage came when he attempted to reconcile these views with this reasoning (emphasis in original):
The researchers solved their conundrum by suggesting that most people are disgusted by the homeless. No kidding. About half the homeless suffer from a mental illness and a third abuse either alcohol or drugs. You’d be crazy not to have a reflexive disgust of a population like that. Is that really so hard to get?
Drum hastened to say that “none of this means we can’t or shouldn’t have empathy for the homeless,” adding, “of course we should, if we want to call ourselves decent human beings.” But he again reiterated his view that disgust for homeless people is natural and sane: “There’s just no need to deny that these reflexes are both innate and perfectly understandable.”
The profound problems with Drum’s argument are self-evident. To begin with, it relies on a crude, ugly stereotype of homeless people — as well as addicts and people with mental health problems — that makes it hard to believe Drum ever interacts with any people in any of those groups. The work I’ve done with homeless people over the last two years confirms what should be extremely obvious: Many people end up living on the street because of some combination of economic hardship, bad luck, job loss, and a lack of family support; any decent human being reacts to their plight with sympathy, empathy, and compassion — not disgust.
Worse, the reasoning in the Mother Jones article implies that people are naturally and justifiably disgusted by those who lose their homes, struggle with addiction, or have mental health afflictions. Who still thinks this way? It’s as if a caricature of some 1950s retrograde moralizer was reincarnated as a 21st-century columnist for a magazine named after a fiery pro-labor revolutionary.
But perhaps the most serious problem is one raised by the researchers on whom the Mother Jones article purports to rely. In an email to me, which I promptly posted on Twitter, one those researchers — professor Spencer Piston of Boston University — objected that the Mother Jones article profoundly misrepresented their research:
Especially infuriating to me is that he misinterpreted our scholarship to do so. We argue that media coverage of homeless people often portrays them as unclean or diseased, which activates disgust among the general public. But he cites our research as proof that homeless people are inherently disgusting — which perpetuates the very problem in journalism our research was trying to solve.
When that produced no response of any kind from Mother Jones, Piston, along with his co-researcher, professor Scott Clifford of the University of Houston, elaborated on these objections in a short piece they submitted for publication by The Intercept. We are posting it here in its entirety:
We recently reported on our research analyzing why so many people who want to help homeless people also support policies that hurt homeless people, such as banning sleeping in public and banning panhandling. Our key finding was that support for these counterproductive policies is driven in part by disgust. That is, in some circumstances, people feel disgust toward homeless people, and as a result seek to avoid them. This motivates some to support exclusionary policies that keep homeless people out of the public eye.
Unfortunately, our scholarship was misinterpreted in some quarters, so here we set the record straight about what our research did — and did not — show.
What we actually found is that the relationship between disgust and public views about homelessness policy depends on three factors. First, it depends on the individual: As previous scholarship in psychology has demonstrated, some people are more prone to feeling the emotion of disgust, or “disgust sensitive,” than others. Second, it depends on whether the policy under consideration is exclusionary. That is, disgust makes people more likely to support policies that remove homeless people from public life, but it doesn’t really affect public opinion about policies that transfer resources to homeless people. Third, disgust is especially likely to be activated when the news media portray homeless people as unclean — as disease threats.
Kevin Drum of Mother Jones reacted to our scholarship as follows:
“No kidding. About half the homeless suffer from a mental illness and a third abuse either alcohol or drugs. You’d be crazy not to have a reflexive disgust of a population like that.”
From our perspective, there are a few things wrong with this statement. We don’t think feelings of disgust toward homeless people are a foregone conclusion rooted in the characteristics of the population. Rather, we suspect that these disgust reactions are primarily due to the fact that homeless people largely lack access to health care and sanitation. Even given this fact, though, not everyone will feel disgust toward homeless people — the emotion is the product of an interaction between personality and context, such as exposure to certain forms of media coverage.
The irony here is that even as Drum distorted our point, he also provided a perfect illustration of it. His depiction of homeless people as inevitably disgusting provides a perfect example of the journalistic coverage of homeless people that we argue is so common, and that our scholarship finds to have such pernicious effects. Portraying homeless people as inevitably or essentially disgusting serves to dehumanize those who are merely struggling to survive.
Drum also seems to imply that disgust is somehow rational or justifiable. However, the emotion is hypersensitive and may promote all sorts of undesirable attitudes and behaviors. In Drum’s defense, he goes on to say that disgust is something that we ought to try to overcome. We agree. Feeling disgust is largely not the result of a conscious choice and it can be extremely difficult to override these feelings. As a result, we don’t think that people should be demonized for feeling disgust.
Unfortunately, many people feel disgust toward homeless people and other marginalized groups, and it can guide our opinions and behaviors even when we know better. Research suggests that the best way to overcome the effects of disgust and prejudice is to spend time considering the perspectives and preferences of members of those groups — which is another reason why it is so important how homeless people are portrayed in the media.
Once this statement was submitted, we sought comment from Mother Jones Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery (who has her own controversial history of statements about homeless people). As a courtesy, I sent her the entire objection from the professors.
After stating that she was unaware of their objections despite my posting their email on Twitter, and after insisting that Drum’s full paragraph be included (it was already discussed in the professors’ article, and I’ve now quoted it), she had only this to say: “Piston and Clifford’s point is that ‘support for these counterproductive policies is driven in part by disgust.’ Kevin was attempting, in a very brief post, to challenge readers and policymakers to contend with those shortcomings of compassion.”
At the very least, it seems that if researchers cited by a magazine object that their findings have been radically distorted, to the point where the research is cited to support a conclusion that the research actually negates, that requires a more serious response than the one Jeffery produced here.
But whatever else is true, having these scholars clarify the actual insights of their research into homelessness — and specifically making clear that it is Drum’s mentality that is the cause of so many of the woes of the homeless population — means that some good came out of Mother Jones’s ugly meditations on the “reflexive” and rational disgust toward one of the world’s most marginalized and oppressed populations.
We should let science and evidence prevail while recognizing that science, like other disciplines, is shaped by competing interests.