“When I say what is, people hear ‘and it’s fine that way’.” – Pierre Bourdieu (1984)
Consider the homeless man.¹ You may have considered the homeless as a collective noun, as a set of displaced peoples scattered throughout your town. But I want to consider the homeless individually and separate from each other, not in order to uncover their rich individual histories and circumstances, but to shift perspective on the topic.
As a character in society, the homeless man is concurrently at two nadirs. He is, as one would assume, at the nadir of his personal narrative – he would much rather be clean shaven, freshly washed and dressed in laundered clothing, and have the luxurious freedom of privacy, dignity, and decency.² Concurrently, he is held at the nadir, or at least within that lowly stratosphere, of capitalistic society and its unspoken hierarchies. He is not earning money. He is construed as the agent solely responsible for his own misfortunes, insofar that he is blamed for his own shortcomings – the contents of his circumstances are neglected. This is the treachery of a capitalist mindset and a neoliberal culture.
This explication appears quite obvious at first glance; this is the reality of the homeless. But societal expectations do not just stop for the homeless, for he is equally privy to a similar set of expectations a lawyer or a plumber face. The homeless ‘he’ is also subject to what it means to be a man. This is what strikes me, as the homeless man is faced with the misfortune of being a male. He is not entitled to the same degree of charity that a female ought to receive, because the male: as an icon, a symbol set dichotomously and simply against its opposite, the female, represents a sort of self-sufficient power. An agent of self-catalysing mobility which involves constant reflexivity, personal construction, and the inherent power to take charge and control his own destiny. This is the traditional aspect of the male, and despite it being utterly prone to fallibility, and ergo the target of vehement criticism as being far too normative³, it prevails in a common-sense arena dictated by ‘folk’ maxims and tenets. It is for this reason that the homeless man needs to be considered distinctly from the collective homeless, and equally needs to be demarcated from the homeless woman, who, given common-sense logic, is naturally disposed to receive a different sort of empathy from passerbyers. Perhaps she is a battered spouse escaping the male-gaze of her abuser; or perhaps she is pregnant, and on the very possibility of her carrying an innocent child she ought to receive as much assistance as possible.⁴ She needs to be given the means of upwards mobility, to escape her own treachery through the plain, non-thinking action of a donation of a handful of coins or the blasé unconcern of a pink five dollar note – reduced down into the unthinking choice between a soy flat white or the maneuver of donation.
And whilst the homeless man is an equally valid subject for redemption, he is not given that opportunity, because expectations are confounded by traditional and enduring ideals. Man needs to be tough, even though the intrinsic contents of his personal narrative are neglected. It is okay for a homeless woman to be hopeless, whereas it is not ok for a homeless man to be hopeless.
I am not writing this essay to criticise how society at large treats the homeless within their field, but I am wanting to draw out and display the fissure that persists between men and women. This is a convoluted relationship, consisting of a tango of factors that set our expectations of people. It requires us to look closely at the many masks people wear when they perform different roles on a day to day basis. But some roles are inextricably set – there’s the biological binary of male and female, but even those who do not fulfill or adhere to that gender binary put on a mask that bravely proclaims: “I am not conforming to the orthodoxy”. This is an active response to symbolic violence⁵, a challenge which asks where dominance exists, who maintains it, and ensuingly rejecting the dominant (and ergo preferred) mask.
It thus follows that I consider what it means to be a passerbyer on a symbolic level, as truth can be found through gestures and expressions.
Consider the usual setting. The homeless man is found sitting or lying on the uncomfortable ground, often the hard artificiality of concrete or the functional curvature of a metal bench. Often this is buffered by a piece of semi-soft cardboard or a tattered piece of fabric. In some instances, the homeless person has a small assortment of their possessions stuffed in large haversacks and totes made of polypropylene. Most homeless have a little scribble on a piece of cardboard: often an opening, then an acknowledgement, and finally an explanation of circumstances and/or a statement of intentions. “Hello and God bless. My name is Adam Smith. I am homeless and have nowhere to go. I need money for important medication”. These cardboard tablets are often laconic and piercing, and they have a curious sort of cleverness about them. The “God Bless” alludes to a sort of properness, a reminder of generosity and selflessness as presented dogmatically as an irrefutable creed of the church. Perhaps this is more for the passerbyer than the homeless themselves, but this a rustic sort of advertising – for there must have been an element of consideration in the creation of this subtle billboard. Its laconicism is tactile, as the homeless subject often situates himself in areas riddled with foot traffic, and often strategically outside of consumer hotspots – shopping districts, centres, malls, and places. One only has a brief moment to read this billboard, so it ought to be readable in haste. This tablet is always accompanied with a receptacle for donation, occupying a designated space: an old hat, a folded piece of soft material, a cardboard coffee cup.
The act of donation is symbolically rich. Consider setting once again, with a deeper scrutiny. Often the homeless is found on the ground – anything other than standing. Often one passes the homeless whilst they themselves are on their feet. We immediately observe a display of power and of one’s worth. A meaningful donation⁶ involves the physical act of lowering of oneself, in that one is required to move onto the homeless’ level. This is an action of equalising. Symbolically, you must become a spectacle: to donate is to become a grand spectacle. In the daytime the spectacle is especially drenched by the daylight, and this establishes the arena which showcases a well-defined pause in the middle of a flurry of movement and intentionality. Walkways and footpaths are transitory arenas between two meaningful points, and they are often inert and functional. To therefore stop is to give the footpath a newfound meaning relational to the homeless man. Stopping for the homeless man is to then bring him into existence in the public realm through equalisation, and to present him as a suffering figure, amplified through action. Both subjects become a spectacle, the passerbyer a Jesus figure, and the homeless a parable-like figure of charity, ultimately positively judged by the former to be worthy of some sort of symbolic redemption.⁷ The homeless man is lifted from his intrinsic sense of defeat by first making this powerlessness public, and then offering him a ray of light through the dispensing of charity.
This creates an audience, for a scene of transaction is created. Yet, symbolically, the transaction represents an overt expression of an unbalanced power relation. The tragedy of the situation is highlighted in a quick and brief flourish set in an aura of generosity. An arbitrary donation of a handful of coins may only represent a minute monetary value for the passerbyer, but for the homeless man it represents much more – he has become the temporary target of good fortune and the subject of a morally beautiful and sublime action. A fistful of coins equating to $1.35 reduces in meaning insofar that it becomes no different to an even more generous donation of $2.65 or even $5.05⁸, for any donation represents a gesture of compassion and generosity.
Does charity represent a sort of bravery? Is it equally shameful for the generous passerbyer to donate to the shame-ridden homeless man, for the completed transaction becomes a public spectacle? But this is ultimately inert – the feeling of dispensing compassion, of recognising what value is, and understanding the value of value itself, is empathetically glorious and empowering – it by far defeats materialism for it transcends that realm. It is symbolically the most just of moral actions. My spare change represents the capacity for both self-evaluation and empathetic power. You’ve delivered not merely spare change, but a benevolent symbol and a gentle message of open-heartedness and tenderness. This is the essence of charity.
¹ I have deliberately gendered this sentence. Man, as opposed to woman, maintains a specific and unique sort of gravitas which I will explain further.
² Consider Orwell’s excellent Down and Out in Paris and London. There’s the prevailing motif of a desire to be clean and presentable, for outwards appearance matters.
³ In other words, why must men be that way? Men don’t need to adhere to any traditional labelling of masculinity.
⁴ Perhaps the donation is more for the unborn child than the pregnant mother, for in Lockean terms the infant is a tabula rasa, with a homogenous opportunity structure shared across each and every other infant. Therefore acts of donation represent the belief that the unborn child has the utmost potential, to be born into this habitat of desolation and poverty is the moment the child is put into chains.
⁵ See Pierre Bourdieu
⁶ In very clear contrast to the haphazard action of carelessly throwing spare change towards the receptacle whilst on the move.
⁷ I foresee an objection to these stated premises – how can the homeless ‘he’ be a figure worthy of redemption iff he is in the habit of consuming illicit substances: counterintuitive, counter-constructive drugs and alcohol? We return to an earlier premise – we tactically sustain from looking at individual circumstances in this instance. For the consumption of illicit substances do not render the homeless ‘he’ any less worthy of charity, for we must, on optimistic grounds, assume the grip of these substances are the result of some larger cause of homelessness. Addiction is thus a valid yet intervening variable; we imply that addiction stems from some other.
⁸ Consider sorites paradox, naturally.