Illustration by Jeremy Kai/Torontoist.
Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—Toronto’s very best and very worst people, places, and things over the past twelve months. From December 13–17: the Villains! From December 20–24, the Heroes! And, from December 27–30, you can vote for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.
Apparently, Cabbagetown is the place for rabble-gazing in Toronto. It’s here that cartoonist Jason Kieffer gleaned the material for his book, The Rabble of Downtown Toronto, a collection of forty profiles of street people, many of whom are homeless, drug-addicted, or mentally disabled. Here we find the sensitively named “Escaped Mental Patient,” who “urinates & masturbates in public” and is identified by a “weird growth on neck,” or “Crazy Hand Lady,” marked by her “greasy hair” and “screaming fits…accompanied by hysterical laughter” [PDF].
Kieffer, who catalogues these individuals like a biologist would specimen samples, has divided readers.
Some, like the Star’s Joe Fiorito—who called it “a nasty little book”—have called Rabble out for making jokes at the expense of its usually homeless subjects. In 2007, after publishing early versions of some of the profiles that appear in the book on BlogTO, Kieffer was asked to stop contributing to the site after its readership “went insane” over the subject matter, he says.
Meanwhile, some others have argued that Kieffer’s project is a call for Torontonians to pay more attention to the “rabble,” a position that Kieffer himself has adopted. He writes on his website: “I see marginalized individuals on a daily basis who try and connect with people around them only to be ignored, written off, or labeled.”
But that’s exactly what Kieffer has himself done. In Rabble, he breaks down his subjects to their basest, most conspicuous qualities, stripping them of any dignity. Like a macabre textbook, the book points out what Kieffer sees as their weaknesses and idiosyncrasies, defining them by their disabilities. In doing this, he transforms individual circumstances into crude caricatures. Wanting Torontonians to stop ignoring the homeless is a noble cause, but Kieffer’s gone about it all the wrong way. He might have interviewed the subjects and looked at the factors that could have contributed to their predicaments, shifting the focus away from their street personas and onto their humanity. Instead, he turns them into circus freaks.
Not only is Kieffer’s book an exercise in how not to raise awareness of a social problem, but representing real people in a bizarre tourist guide of where and how to find them—it even has maps—is inherently problematic. In Rabble, we have a group of vulnerable subjects, many of whom work and sleep on the streets. An encyclopedic catalogue of their weaknesses and idiosyncrasies could even potentially target them for violence or persecution. It also shows, of course, a gross disrespect for their privacy.
Numerous times since its publication, Kieffer has defended the book by saying that it’s not supposed to be funny. We don’t doubt him. We wonder, however, whether it is supposed to be mean. With smug superiority, Kieffer treats his subjects as just that: subjects. To him, these are people to be studied, scrutinized, pointed at. At its core, The Rabble of Downtown Toronto, and Kieffer, show a fundamental lack of compassion, which is, of course, what most of the “rabble” need most.