In a series of seven Tweets and a consequential March 2012 article in The Atlantic, Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole coined the term “White-Savior Industrial Complex” to describe the power relations present between privileged Western “do-gooders” and the African people facing immense violence at the hands of Joseph Kony. The Tweets included such facetious observations as “the white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening,” “the world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm,” and “this world exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people and Oprah.”
Here, Cole made explicitly clear the oppressive, violent implications of those who feel compelled to “save” other people. By concluding that others need to be “saved,” saviors assume both that those who occupy different life-worlds lack agency to confront the problem they face themselves, and that the savior understands the complexities of others’ experiences enough to act in a helpful, effective, and non-oppressive manner. This line of thought strikes me as profoundly arrogant–a mindset that, as I’ve spoken of before, I think must be eradicated if we hope to coexist in the world with others. By working in this arrogant way, saviors more often than not end up reinforcing power imbalances and contributing further to the systemic oppression of those they’re trying to “save.”
The savior complex — applied more generally than the specific White-Savior Industrial Complex that Cole discusses, though I in no way mean to equivocate the Western Humanitarian savior/African “victim” relationship with any other very specific, complex instance of savior dynamics — is present in various social movements. For example, environmentalism speak of “saving” the earth, humanitarianism speaks of “saving” Black and brown people around the world who live in materially different ways than we in the West, and, of course, animal justice work speaks of “saving” other animals. It is this latter instance of the savior complex that I will focus on in this post.
In my experience, we who strive to work in solidarity with other animals to combat speciesism often speak of “rescuing” animals from agricultural operations and/or other situations of abuse, so that we can provide them with an adoptive home or bring them to a sanctuary. Though I can appreciate that other animals may require human-animal solidarity in that humans can more effectively communicate systemic species-based oppression with other humans who have not yet begun a process of learning to speak the languages of other animals, I think that understanding ourselves as the “rescuers” of other animals reinforces our default mode — which Cole so clearly points out — of assuming that we have the experiential knowledge to “fix” the world.
To continue to strive for radical humility in relation to “rescuing” in my animal justice work, I find it helpful to remind myself of those animals who have escaped from agricultural operations themselves, of the power that animals themselves have to shift the hearts and minds of humans (think of those who begin to advocate veganism because of a visit to a sanctuary), and of the ability of animals to very clearly communicate with us (assuming that we exercise enough humility to actually listen to them).
Though I certainly don’t think that waiting until every animal escapes from the farm to which they’re confined is a viable model of combating speciesism (nor is it safe for the animal, who due to our exploitative domestication of them can adequately survive without human support), I do think that we who participate in animal justice work need to do a much better job of allowing other animals to guide our actions and to remain at the center of our movement, rather than centering ourselves as “rescuers” and “saviors.”
In striving to engage in solidarity work rather than savior work, I think that most importantly we can help to foster in other humans an understanding of speciesism. This work can both confront the problem systemically rather than offering a band-aid solution, and remind us of our own implication in the oppression of other animals (which in turn can aid in developing in us a mode of radical humility).
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t continue to provide other animals with safe and supportive homes. What I am saying, though, is that in doing so, we must continue to combat our own internalized specieism, work against speciesism more broadly in systemic ways, and really learn to listen to the other animals with whom we purport to work in solidarity. Otherwise, we will continue to reinforce the speciesist notion of the helplessness of other animals, and uphold a form of the dangerous savior complex first explicitly articulated by Cole, and present in so many forms of social action.
In solidarity, Ali.
Checker, Melissa, Dana-Ain Davis, and Mark Schuller. “The Conflicts of Crisis: Critical Reflections on Feminist Ethnography and Anthropological Activism.” American Anthropologist 116.2 (June 2014): 408-409. Web. 14 June 2015.