The “White Savior Industrial Complex” – Lit Review – Part 5

Subverted Agency and Pleasure Principles

Adding to the complexity of the White Savior Industrial Complex is the issue of agency, specifically around the empowerment of recipients of aid versus the power of donors. In many ways, Western donors are the ones receiving the largest benefits.  In the context of KONY 2012, one can receive a “KONY” bracelet for just a single $10 donation, which can then be shared via Facebook and worn around in public to show one’s support of a so-called “good cause”. These types of symbols exist in many forms, but it may be that the biggest pleasure is derived simply by being the sought-after audience: the viewer.

For Cole, Western viewers benefit largely by proxy – one can be part of the global movement, aka “make a difference”, simply by being there and watching. Video advertisements in the UK, according to Rideout (2010), had a clear path available for viewers in this regard: “The call to action was to visit the website to find out the number of ways in which they could help make a difference – from donating £5 to sponsoring a child for £18 a month.’” (Rideout, 2011) Additionally, popular, catchy theme songs – “We Are the World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” are two that Davis (2010) cites – provide a way for citizens to feel engaged and empowered. She writes:

“…famine relief songs were…integral in the rallying of public support. While journalists and academics rightly criticized [the songs] for their ethnocentric overtones and flawed one-world sentiment, [they] received little such criticism from the public. On the contrary, the songs became the self-congratulatory theme tunes to a growing movement that provided many disenfranchised groups with a sense of purpose, community, and agency as global citizens.” (Davis, 2010, p. 93)

Clearly, the agency and empowerment provided to the West is intended to trickle down to the real recipients, but not without gimmicky and consumerist tactics.   As Davis (2010) astutely points out, “While ultimately [Live Aid] offered few new options to those starving in Africa, [it] offered many economic and cultural opportunities for the cities in which the concerts were held, for celebrity organizers and participants, for corporate sponsors, and for concert-goers.” (Davis, 2010, p. 96)

Pertinent to the notion of agency are the concepts of representation and empowerment for humanitarianism’s intended recipients. Despite the strategy that claims donors must feel empowered in order to take action, Davis (2010) critiques the level of autonomy and direct participation of recipients in large-scale events:

“… with Live Aid, the hype and the technology overshadowed the cause. Few Africans were allowed to perform, thus proving that little had changed since 1985 when [Live Aid founder] Geldof, during a visit to Burkina Faso, undermined national customs, laughed at the ceremonies designed in his honor, and scathingly joked about the impossibility of putting on a Live Aid event in Africa because such an event would fail to attract Michael Jackson.” (Davis, 2010, p. 106)

Cole (2012) and Jessie (2012) refer to the lack of representation in KONY 2012 as well. The media deliberately reduce participation and representation of “the other” in order to elicit the necessary emotions and actions from its (real) audience – the West. By employing digital whiteness, the West can relate to the Savior character and, correspondingly, take action to “make a difference”. Cole (2012) admonishes this trend precisely because it is perpetuating the myth of the White Savior by subverting the actors:

“This is not the sort of story that is easy to summarize in an article, much less make a viral video about. After all, there is no simple demand to be made and — since corruption is endemic — no single villain to topple. There is certainly no “bridge character,” Kristof’s euphemism for white saviors in Third World narratives who make the story more palatable to American viewers.” (Cole, 2012)

The other subverted effect of the media’s portrayal of the White Savior is the pleasure principle involved. Just as buying a $10 KONY bracelet, or a Product Red© t-shirt from the GAP, allows one to feel empowered through one’s purchasing power, the act of consumption of digital videos, images and texts also allows the same feeling of pleasure. Davis (2010) explains:

“By consuming famine and famine relief texts, by donating time and money to the famine relief effort, consumers not only showed their propensity for compassion for the Other; but they also elicited pleasure, and carved out for themselves the new socio-cultural role of compassionate consumer, of self-reliant philanthropist, of worthy citizen.” (Davis, 2010, p. 103)

Davis continues on by excoriating the West and its subverted goals by summarizing the following: “Presenting Africa as helpless victim, and celebrity activists as white men willing to take up the burden to save a continent dying from the lack of entrepreneurial spirit, does little but aggrandize celebrity figures” (Davis, 2010, p. 111) The “White Man’s Burden”, aka White Savior Industrial Complex, feeds and nourishes itself through the use of perverted pleasure, agency and empowerment principles. By suppressing “the Other” and praising the West, the discourse remains one-sided and empty. Cole admonishes the West through his pithy tweet, “the world is nothing to but a problem to be solved through enthusiasm.” (Cole, 2012)


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