Commentary

Attacking Homeless People Is an Effective Authoritarian Power Tool

Authoritarian followers and opponents alike are nicely handled (and made a fool of) with the same distraction.  

Please stop assuming that the priority of the individuals who occupy power positions is your welfare. It can’t be. Even a well-meaning politician needs to gain/keep power before she can start making your life better. And not all politicians are well-meaning. Most of them duly despise their own voters, and not just by accident.

Firstly, power attracts a certain type of person, so there’s a counter-selection mechanism in place to begin with. Secondly, even those who don’t want power will be corrupted by it. Just watch Lord of the Rings or read any newspaper with your eyes open. And finally, there is hero’s syndrome. The same thing that makes a firefighter start a fire or a social worker inflict misery on her charges will make a politician

With that in mind, please take another look at the cruel nonsense that is arresting, fining and incarcerating homeless people for not having a place to live. It makes zero economic sense. And for a mentally healthy individual it makes no political sense either. For an authoritarian follower, however, any attack on the weak is a plus.

The Hungarian government’s latest war is on homeless people. Not homelessness, but homeless people. The move is a textbook case of scapegoating/target building (by the state) and victim blaming (by the helpless, oppressed public).

Maria is 62. She spent many years working in the US before returning to Hungary upon her mother’s death. It was a grave mistake. Her life never quite bounced back. She worked as a nurse and part-time cleaner to make some money, before losing both jobs. And to be fair, the two incomes are also not enough to pay rent on your own. She became homeless five months ago when her partner died an she wasn’t allowed to stay in their apartment. Clearly, all Maria needed was a law that makes rough sleeping illegal to fix her life.

A bunch of policemen worked hard to arrest another homeless guy. He wasn’t on the street willingly, he was even willing to go to a homeless shelter but he couldn’t as his papers had been stolen. (Most homeless avoid the shelters like the plague because of condescending treatment, violence, theft, and because their canine companions are not allowed there.)

All last week, police was occupied chasing perpetrators of victimless non-crimes, while courts saw their cases in quick procedure. Despite people in the neighborhood turning up to testify and vouch for her, Maria was sent off with a warning. Her defenders were not allowed to testify.

Maria was not even allowed to appear in person before her judge. Neither were the other homeless who were arrested by police last week. The remote-camera system that was introduced to protected witnesses was put to use – presumably to protect the courtrooms from the presence of the homeless. Her blanket and belongings were taken away, her dog sent to a shelter, and she was told that after three such warnings she will end up in jail.

All this time these homeless citizens were required to perform this self-deprecating, apologizing routine: I am so sorry, didn’t mean to become a nuisance, I want to get off the street, I am sorry, I don’t bother anyone, I tried, I keep trying, I promise. These are counted as mitigating factors. Pride, defiance, an unbent backbone are punished in front of authorities.

Attacking Maria and her kind is, of course, not an honest attempt to tackle the problem of homelessness. It is a vintage authoritarian communication weapon.

It 1) makes authoritarian supporters gloat with schadenfreude and self-righteous victim blaming,

it 2) makes the remaining non-authoritarians attack the move and thus discuss homelessness

3) instead of discussing the issues that might bring their own cause forward.

Orbán hit plenty of birds with just one stone when he attacked homeless people.

The move leaves opponents in the not-too-popular homeless-coddling corner, when they should rather discuss corruption, economic mismanagement, eroding civil liberties and constitutional checks on state power, or any number of other things that are at the root of the problem. But when the media is full of images of policemen arresting homeless people and taking their stuff, plenty of opposition bandwidth moves right there.

Orbán did the same when he banned the teaching of gender studies (NOT the state funding of it, even though Western right wingers prefer to soothe themselves claiming that.) Or when he announced to bring back the death penalty. Or when he closed retail stores for Sunday and the whole country spent a year and a half begging for the damage and nuisance to be undone – rather than moving ahead. Your outrage is his boon. And your well-meaning defense of the group under attack also helps the dictator.

Of course, orbán’s anti-homeless drive is just that: an attack on homeless people, not the phenomenon of homelessness (not that state measures are so great at fixing economic problems). In other words, it is an attack on the weak that invariably attracts support from helpless, authoritarian minds. And for a very sad reason.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that healthy people don’t blame the victim or fabricate excuses to condone injustice if they are in the position to rectify the situation.

When a jackass kindergartner bullies an innocent kindergartner, a healthy adult steps in. There is no risk in taking the side of the victim. But when a law enforcement officer of an authoritarian oppressor abuses a Jew, a gypsy, an immigrant, a homeless, or any other member of the state-targeted enemy groups, the not-attacked onlooker faces a dilemma. Allow the injustice to happen (by active or passive support) and survive – or become a victim/target by trying to prevent it.

And if he chooses survival, it is better done if he can come up with mitigating factors. Maybe even a full-blown justification for the injustice. Like explaining why the Jew whose home and the life was taken actually had it coming. The Jew did something to deserve his fate. So a not-attacked onlooker can avoid the same fate if he refrains from doing the same thing. Which is a very soothing thought because it puts him back into (illusory) control over his own life. The sense of helplessness is worse than the certainty of something bad happening. Humans come up with spectacular mind trick to protect themselves from feeling helpless – just as they do with preserving their self-image.

An authoritarian mind strives to maintain and restore the illusion of control – especially when he is, in fact, not in control of his life outcomes.

If he were in control, he wouldn’t need these mind tricks.

Melvin Lerner called it the “just world hypothesis” to explain victim blaming. By seeing innocent people being victimized, cognitive dissonance ensues. The rational strategy to restore the sense of order in the world would be either to accept the reality of injustice (and thus one’s own helplessness in the face of it), or trying to prevent it or provide restitution. But that’s not how the mind works. There are also non-rational strategies that have a much less ambitious goal: only to restore the illusion of order. They include denial, withdrawal, and the reinterpretation of the event. This is where victim blaming comes in handy.

By blaming a homeless person for being homeless or the Jew for being deported, the helpless mind is desperately trying to re-establish (not just a sense of order, or “just world”, as Lerner posited, but) a sense of control over his own life. If he can prove that the victim did something wrong, then it is just a matter of not doing the same thing, and he can avoid the victim’s fate.

Victim blaming and supporting the attack on the weak is a psychological substitute for control, not the real thing. And the consequences for striving for a self-soothing substitute rather than real control are grim.

By trying to appease the powerful, the authoritarian mind weakens further his own standing against it. 

In short, hitting on the homeless is an effective authoritarian strategy. It has nothing to do with the phenomenon of homelessness, it is not even worth bringing it up. It could be any other group – whether already hated or not. What matters is what you don’t discuss in the meantime. And that your sense of control erodes even further when the government doesn’t stop the harassment of the homeless. (They won’t. There is nothing to compel them.)

The attack also galvanizes Orbán’s authoritarian followers. They will be motivated to blame the weak and fabricate all sorts of justifications – thereby weakening their own civil liberties even further. I have already read major opinionators discussing harassment of “our” women by homeless people, pointing out that they are a public nuisance – thereby illustrating how even intellectuals bend their minds to be able to support the powerful.

It is uncomfortable to be against the powerful. It doesn’t pay. It may even be punished. It’s lucky when you just happen to agree with him. 

I keep looking, but there is no sign that these self-appointed “right wing” minds call out the wasteful usage of police resources and lawyers, judges and prosecutors performing the legal farce of fining, warning and jailing homeless people according to the letter of the law. (In at least one occasion the judge even managed to put the homeless man under house arrest – which not only is impossible, but certainly doesn’t help with a job search.) Isn’t government waste what they are supposed to be against? Only if we swallow ideologies.

For once, these “conservative”minds are not bothered by central planning echoes of communism either. There was, in fact, a very similar drive by the Communist Party leadership under communism to criminalize homelessness. They called it something like “public menace due to avoiding work” (közveszélyes munkakerülő) and they put it in your state-issued ID under your profession, stigmatizing you for life. Because that makes you reconsider your poor choices. Just like jail and farcical and stigmatizing court procedures do.

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Featured image: Edward Chambré Hardman, Rainy Day in Chester, 1947

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