What happened to you, Mother Jones? Link
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?
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.
The article goes on to print the full response the researchers sent The Intercept for publication. Feelings of disgust for the homeless are a learned behavior that are, at the very least, exacerbated, if not caused by, the negative way they are portrayed in the media. And here comes Mother Jones basically saying, "Of course! The homeless are disgusting." *smacks forehead* Great self-reflection there, Kevin Drum. I'm also starting to question your reading comprehension abilities.
The response from Mother Jones' editor-in-chief shows how the magazine continues to miss the point.
[Clara Jeffery] 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."
Uh, no. They were actually challenging you, the media, to overcome your shortcomings in they way you report on the homeless.