Professor Erin Dej: Homeless Men Are Oppressors Too

Homeless man in Toronto

For one feminist professor, the fight against the partriarchy has not gone far enough. So she took to the streets, in order to determine just how oppressive one of the most vulnerable populations in Canada, homeless men, really are.

No, I’m not joking.

Professor Erin Dej of Wilfrid Laurier University has published a book titled Containing Madness, and in chapter ten, “When a Man’s Home Isn’t a Castle: Hegemonic Masculinity Among Men Experiencing Homelessness and Mental Illness,” she describes the results of over 296 hours of covertly studying homeless men and her interviews with 27 invidivuals. Her conclusions are made clear by the title; even homeless men exercise oppression through hegemonic masculinity.

While researching vulnerable populations typically requires both informed consent of those being researched, and the approval of an ethics review board, she does not mention the ethics of her work with the homeless once in the book. When PJMedia asked her to comment on the approval of an ethics review board, she declined to answer.

According to Dej, hegemonic masculinity is defined as “the configuration of gender practice which embodies the current answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women.” This is, of course, a constructionist definition of a constructionist concept; and despite all evidence which Dej presents to the contrary, she maintains this definition in her pursuit to accuse those on which she spies and those who she interviews. In reading through the chapter, it becomes clear that Dej is using facts to confirm a predetermined conclusion, rather than founding her conclusion on the facts before her.

Take the case of one interviewee, “Ron.” At age 41, and as a result of many mental health diagnoses since childhood and his use of drugs to self-medicate, Ron has trouble walking, breathing, and eating, and is described as being “very distressed.” He describes his condition before entering the homeless shelter as follows:

Like, my lungs were so pathetic. I’ve never been scared; you know, people, women or whatever say, I’m so scared of walking outside at night. Like, I can’t imagine that, well I did. I walked down the street and, like, a little girl could have killed me. That’s how weak I was. I was actually scared. Like, wow.

“Ron”, an interviewee in Prof. Erin Dej’s Containing Madness

Dej then immediately accuses Ron of positioning his weakness in relationship to women, and paints a picture of privilege that Ron supposedly ignores. I can scarcely imagine what kind of sociopath listens to a man revealing his deepest fears regarding his health, and responds in this manner.

And this is a continuing theme throughout the chapter. She ridicules and makes light of these men’s conditions and limitations, by explaining the privilege of height; or dismisses anything they might say in earnest should they even mention women.

“Julien”, another interviewee, is accused of perpetuating masculine stereotypes when he tells Dej, “I’m ashamed that I have problems. Like, guys in our society are not supposed to have problems.” I suspect the irony of her reinforcement of his belief that he should have no problems, due to the privilege granted to him as a man, would be lost on her.

She even goes so far as to say that even if men were to open up about their emotions, it “[allows] masculinity to prevail without necessarily challenging the patriarchal foundation upon which it rests.” There is no escape from the conclusion which she has decided upon before any facts are gathered.

In one interview with a 38-year old homeless man named “Mustang”, the subject of female psychiatrists is breached. Mustang states:

We had a doctor, awesome lady. And I mean, she’s short, she’s fragile, and she could be very direct if she needs to be but she’ll walk around that hospital without fear. She treats us like people, and I remember watching when I first got there, I was like, wow, she’s got balls, you know what I mean? You’re in a mental hospital, you’ve got a bunch of freaks here, y’know, but not at all. She was respected by all the patients and I mean, if you dared, well for the most part, a lot of the guys if you were out of line with one of the females they’d take care of you in the washroom.

“Mustang”, interviewee

This is described as objectification by Dej, who I can only assume did not understand a word Mustang was saying; in his descriptions of how other men reinforced respect for those women in the mental hospital who did their work honourably, she can only see the reinforcement of “women taking up the care-taker role” and “reinforcing femininity as connoting gentleness, meekness, and in need of male protection.”

The “gendered lens” and “constructionist understanding” which Professor Dej applies in her unethical research into these vulnerable individuals tells us more about the students of Critical Theory and Gender Studies, than anything she might have to say about these men. But given the $185,000 she has been awarded by the Canadian government in order to research the homeless since 2009, it’s likely she won’t have any trouble exploiting these vulnerable populations in the future.

This article originally misspelled Professor Dej’s name as “Professor Erin Rej”. It has been updated to fix this mistake.