A Homeless Man Walks into a Hair Salon…

November 17, 2011

Political Theory


The other day, I was getting a haircut at a place in town, right off Main Street. It’s a pretty nice place, which made the following events all the more peculiar. As I was getting my haircut, a drunk, homeless man stumbled into the salon and took a seat in one of the waiting chairs. He began to speak with customers—I couldn’t really hear what he was saying—and seemingly aggravated both them and management.  My hairstylist was the first employee to go up to him; the combined smell of alcohol and filth made her walk away as quickly as she had walked up, finding the manager immediately. Then, the store manager began talking to him, pressing him to leave. He was fairly kind to the man and eventually convinced him to leave the salon. The nauseated face of the manager indicated his disgust.

Yet, discussion on the homeless man’s actions did not end there. The lady who was cutting my hair started to talk to her fellow hairstylists around her. “Did you see that?! It was so bizarre! I wouldn’t want to deal with him,” were some of the first exclamations used to describe her view of what had transpired. Interestingly though, the conversation evolved—it changed from being about what had happened to why it had happened. And this is when I began to start hearing more subjective, personal remarks made about that homeless man who entered the salon. Gross, a bum, worthless, deserving of the life he has—all used as descriptions for a man that no one in the salon knew at all.

Hearing all of this negative emotion and degradation of the homeless man, I started to feel sorry for him. Had he been drunk? Most definitely yes, but that does not mean we can start to judge his whole life. Lots of people drink; not everyone is homeless. Do we know how he came to be homeless? It might not have been because of his ineptitude; maybe he was a veteran who now has mental problems? Maybe he lost his job and all his wealth in the financial crisis and was so shattered that it caused him to become a wandering drunk? Maybe he was a victim of the capitalist system as discussed by Marx and Engels?

The fact is that we cannot make such harsh judgments on individuals whose lives have been dictated by forces they cannot control. In class, we are learning about Rousseau’s second discourse and his opinions on how society became as it is was in his day, which I believe is still applicable to our current society. Rousseau believed that the establishment of private property grossly enlarged the small inequalities that naturally exist due to individual differences of ability. Property, not dependent on skill, eventually created a system that emphasized the judgment of others based on what they “have.” “The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said ‘This is mine,’ and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody” (Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754). Here, Rousseau makes his argument that the Earth and it’s natural bounties belong to all individuals. Therefore, our current socioeconomic system impedes the existence of individual freedom because of the hoarding of property and resources by individuals undeserving of them. Ultimately, this has perpetuated a system that requires the wealthy to depend on the poor and requires the poor to appease the wealthy, which further restricts individual freedom.

While our current definition of property may be more abstract, I believe that Rousseau’s argument applies because the world including the United States—is divided economically. Economic inequality exists everywhere, and it is becoming a critical point of tension, shown clearly by the Wall Street and similar protests. To Rousseau, the neglected, exploited people of the world are obvious victims of the poor social contracts our society has continued to hold high. Many people who have wealth and power were born into their positions and in many cases are consequently unqualified. In addition, those who are in the system are slaves to it—office workers having to suck up to their bosses, bosses sucking up to directors, etc. Today, work is mostly done to appease others and attempt to either move up or prevent downfall; each day, individuals act in ways that neglect their freedom.

So, was the homeless man who walked into my salon a victim of our society’s social contract, our economic system, his own lack of talent or a combination of them all? When can we say that an individual’s role in society was selected entirely on his own accord rather than forced by society’s constraints? Or, were the people in the salon simply judging the man in order to validate their own status and make themselves feel higher.

Ultimately, I do not think that we can ever define an individual’s circumstances based entirely on his/her own actions and abilities. Whether we like it or not, our society has created vast inequality that has been sustained for generations. Rather than fight the people that are worse off, we have to fight the parts of our society that make them that way. To do this, we must first change those institutional aspects of society as well as the mental conditions of its constituents that continue to perpetuate our current system.

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4 Comments on “A Homeless Man Walks into a Hair Salon…”

  1. briank726 Says:

    I think it is just instinctive for people to act as they did toward the homeless man. There is an obvious stigma of being homeless and many people get uncomfortable being around them. The fact that this particular homeless man was also intoxicated and talking to the customers would surely annoy them more. I don’t think the people were judging the man and harshly disregarding his circumstances and how he ended up that way, but that they were more disturbed by how he was acting. And who knew if he was even able to afford a haircut, which doesn’t give him a valid reason to be there in the first place. Also, where I am from in New York City, the homeless I encountered were pretty aggressive in demanding money and acting disturbingly. It is not that I have something very against homeless people, but that I don’t think it is irrational for many people to react the way they do to them. But I also agree with you that the way some people react is unjustified. I am actually friends with a homeless man on campus who I’ve gotten to know through attending the same church.
    I agree that society should be changed to fix the unfairness and inequality for the homeless. It is true that many of them cannot help being ended up in their situations. So what can be done? Maybe we can take Rawl’s view and create more institutions that would cater to their strengths or even more institutions that can just aid them by giving them food, shelter. Programs should be implemented so that society can afford these commodities for the homeless because they are also people.

  2. sarahspath23 Says:

    This post reminds me of Ann Arbor and how people will walk right by the homeless people holding cups and asking us to “spare a dollar.” People have a preconceived notion about the homeless that I don’t think will go away easily or anytime soon. I think that many people, including myself, have an initial disgust or negative feeling towards people who are homeless. I am someone who passes by homeless people sitting on the sides of buildings without saying anything, not because I don’t have money but because I am slightly scared of them and do not know why they are asking for money.

    I don’t know the circumstances that led these people to be on the streets, it could be because of our society and economic system or it could be because they were in debt from doing something illegal. I guess we tend to lean towards the latter because it is the worst possible scenario and partially because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Our economy is built in such a way that people are selfish and greedy since that will make you more money than everyone else. In our society, money leads to power, which is something that most people want as well.

    Therefore, making homeless people look bad helps us do better in society. We don’t necessarily feel guilty about it because it is a possibility of how homeless people got to where they are now. Also, part of the reason I don’t give homeless people money is because I do not know if they are telling the truth about being homeless and I don’t know what they will do with the money. For all I know, the person sitting on the side of a building may have a home and pretends to be homeless to get more money. As I said before, we are all greedy to some extent so I feel that this is also plausible. Even if the person is actually homeless, how do I know that they won’t spend the money on frivolous things such as cigarettes or alcohol.

    I did get off on a slight tangent, but the principle is the same to the story in this post. People are naturally greedy and self-interested, especially because our economic system has made it so these characteristics will get you further. Therefore, we look down on people who are homeless and assume they made some bad decisions in their life, which got them to where they are now. In this case, we feel it is not our duty to help them. Although the hairstylists and manager were not mean to the homeless guy, their comments afterward about how he was worthless and deserving of the life he has seem a little harsh to me. They do not know this person, they only know one day in his life, actually not even a day.

    It is his appearance and how he acted that led the hairstylists to judge him to be worthless. In our society, we do judge people based on appearance because it is our first point of contact with someone. Therefore, I can understand judging the homeless guy, but not to the extent where you assume things about his life and him as a person. I am sure that these hairstylists were seeing the guy on a bad day in his life. I do not think we should infer people’s background based on how they may seem because we could never know the truth to how they got to where they are today.

    I feel that the hairstylists probably felt that it was the homeless guy’s own fault for being homeless. He must have made some bad choices in the past that led him to lose his belongings and relationships. However, I believe that it was a combination of this guy’s own personal choices, our society’s social contract, our economic system, and his own abilities that led to his current life. I mentioned already about our economic system and his own personal choices, so I will focus on the other two reasons.

    Rousseau recognized that everyone does have differences in talent and abilities. This, I think, is understood by most people. Rousseau thought that these initial natural differences were minimal though. However, in today’s society those differences can be huge sources of inequality since people with certain natural abilities tend to succeed and make more money. These might include athletes, entrepreneurs, models, singers, and more. People with more determination with also tend to go further in their lives. Our society has made it so that people with these talents will be given more, similar to Rousseau’s ideas about property. He felt that property was the turning point into civil society where the inequalities were enhanced and become a dividing factor. We have a system that values such talents and rewards these people more.

    Therefore, people who are already starting at a disadvantage because they do not have these natural abilities are even more disadvantaged because they are being punished, so to speak, for not having these abilities. They have to work harder to achieve in their lives. This could be the story for many homeless people that could not compete. Maybe we should go back to the early days that Rousseau describes where people did not really associate with one another and solely focused on their basic needs. That is kind of like homeless people except that they are in a society that does not value this lifestyle.

    So maybe the homeless guy that walked into the hair salon was drunk and homeless because of choices he made in the past. But maybe our society put him in a position where he lost all of his property and couldn’t recover. We will never know the truth, but it is nearly impossible to know from one encounter with someone. I don’t think our society is going to change anytime soon, but we could begin focusing on how to help those that society has done wrong to. It may not be through their own fault so why should they have to pick up the pieces of their lives alone while others, who are currently better off, mock them? I understand that not all homeless people have been wronged, but some have and deserve more than our disgust.

  3. Baihan Li Says:

    This post reminds me of a phrase I heard, ” The pity of my life is not that I am experiencing misery but people believe I am miserable.”

    All too often we put our standard to evaluate other people. We believe one should be friendly, kind, clean and polite. When people fail to fulfill those requirement, we criticize this particular person rather than the society. For most of us, the disadvantage of one mainly attributes to himself. However, we usually ignore the fact that it is his environment shape him into the man we encounter. There, the environment could be the his parents, his friends, his school and, even, us.

    To a broader view, this goes into the mechanism of law and morality. We are applying the same law to everyone. More precisely, we are judicially equal while we are at different starting lines. Most of us can enjoy a good life without any vices, such as theft and robbery. Meanwhile, there are some people who have no way but to commit crime for living. We blame them for their choosing immoral life, but we never consider whether they have a choice. This goes further to the need of social welfare.

  4. Rainyo Says:

    I think brianfrankel really hit the nail on the head with this post. I had a similar experience this summer while riding a bus to and from my workplace. There was a man sitting a row behind me. There was another seat available in his row. A presumably homeless man entered the bus and tried to sit in the available seat, only to be met with hostility from the man sitting next to him. “Why can’t I sit here?”, the homeless man mumbled. The man sitting down said, “Because you’re dirty and drunk!”. Now, this homeless man was obviously a bit dirty, but to presume that he is drunk is a bit outlandish. As far as I know, this man wasn’t showing any signs of public drunkenness, but was accused of being drunk nonetheless, just because of his outward appearance. It would be interesting to see how this man would react if this same homeless man was dressed in a business suit and was ‘clean’. Would he still be presumably ‘drunk’? I remember watching a social experiment on television a couple years back where a good looking guy, dressed to impress, shows up two separates times in front of a club. The first time, he shows up in a beat-up old car. He was getting strange looks and even though he was handsome, he wasn’t getting ‘the look’ from passerby women. The second time he showed up to the club, he showed up in a souped-up sports car. He was still dressed in the same clothing as the first time he arrived, but this time he was met with looks of approval from everyone, especially the women. It is bizarre how we categorize and make assumptions about others solely based on the quality of items they own. I guess I myself fall into this category of presuming that the guy being ridiculed on the bus was homeless, even though I had really no room to presume such a thing. the sad truth is people perceive with their eyes, making assumptions solely by outward appearances. A person’s outward appearance can, in some instances, say a lot about a person, but it is still not our place to judge. As brianfrankel said, there could be a legitimate reason for a person’s appearance/demeanor that can easily contradict initial perceptions of an individual.

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