The “White Savior Industrial Complex” – Lit Review – Part 4

Orientalist Global Media Campaigns

Cole’s center argument about the White Savior Industrial Complex – that the media, using white privilege, distorts, oversimplifies world problems while disempowering the “other” – is widely apparent in recent years due to the rise in social media campaigns and online activism. Before the internet, however, global humanitarian and aid campaigns were just as powerful, yet inherently more costly and “in your face” due to the nature of broadcast media and the ways consumers absorbed and shared knowledge.  Citing the world concerts Live Aid (1985) and Live 8 (2005), global campaigns spearheaded by white men to end poverty in Africa, Louise Davis (2010), details how the media was used to further a Western agenda aimed at serving “the other”.  She summarized how the 2005 Live 8 concert was “broadcast live, via seven telecommunications satellites, to an estimated one billion television viewers in over 150 countries worldwide. Over the course of one weekend, Live Aid raised over seventy million dollars to ―feed the world” (Davis, 2010, p. 95) The issues inherent in global media campaigns is that they must, by the nature of broadcast media, be oversimplified in order to reach and penetrate a large audience. Employing the binary narrative, the West condenses complex social problems like governmental corruption, lack of primary education, inadequate health care, hunger and starvation, violence against women, and so on, under the simple phrase “global poverty”. By rolling up all the interlocked and interwoven, complex issues that plague the “Third World” under the banner of “poverty”, the West can more easily comprehend the problem and begin quickly addressing it through action, and aid. Media allow for the oversimplification of problems in order for us to justify the outcome – a response.  As Rideout (2011) explains, “Visual representations of the Third World by western powers were essential in naturalizing colonial discourse” (Rideout, p. 33); this “essentialization” continues on in new form, with the rise of global charity and White Savior movements.

While white privilege is inherent in these types of global campaigns (just by the nature of their existence, in employing celebrity power, money and agency, they reinforce white privilege), not all of participants remain unaware of the intended affect and how to achieve it. Lisa Rideout (2010) interviewed the creator of an advertisement video for one UK charity’s global campaign against poverty.  Discussing the “shock value” tactics of the campaign – it juxtaposed a suburban white setting with that of violence and poverty in Africa –  the agency spokesperson said:

“The very aim of this film is to contextualize the situation in developing countries [for] those in the First World. That’s exactly the problem with these social, political and economic issues – they’re all far too broad and complicated for the layman to understand, let alone care about. By giving the viewer a close-up look at a single issue, it makes it easier for them to understand and subsequently act against. It is also a far less hopeless scenario than hitting them with the bigger picture and all the facts and figures at once.” (Rideout, 2011, p. 28)

Rideout acknowledges that the agents are overtly aware of the media’s ability to propagate the binary, Savior/Saved narrative to the masses. It is also clear that Rideout is sensitive to the orientalist nature of the campaigns – how the white narrative supports continued action in the “Third World”. She explains that in two different campaigns, the “negative portrayal is related to the ‘othering’ of the Third World that can be viewed in both advertisements” (Rideout, 2011, p. 35) By continuing to maintain the West as both the center and intended audience of global campaigns, these global movements are nothing short of Orientalist and full of white privilege. The videos, concerts and advertisements place the West as the subject and the “Third World” as the “other” – vile, violent, dysfunctional, frightening.  By identifying with the White Savior, the West can push its agenda and solicit donations and action.

Another global media campaign that recently came about in 2012 was the Global Citizen Festival and subsequent online media efforts. The Global Citizen Festival and website, launched in October to coincide with the UN Summit, aimed to “end global poverty” through a combination of high-wattage celebrity concerts, online petitions and social media. Run by the Global Poverty Project, a small Australian NGO founded by white men and women, the Global Citizen Festival reached a live audience of more than 60,000 in New York’s Central Park, and more than a million viewers from online and across the globe. Like the Live Aid and Live 8 predecessors, this concert was filled with Western musical groups and hit its target with broad strokes (after all, they all shared the same goal – “to end global poverty”). As its website suggests, the task is difficult and requires help from all angles;  the intended angle it proposed, however, is inherently Western and full of white privilege: “We know that people living in extreme poverty are working hard themselves, and that we need to learn and take action to change the rules that trap them in broken systems.” (Global Poverty Project, 2012) This statement alone speaks volumes for the Orientalist, Western-centric approach it boldly, with zero explanation, endorses.

Cole’s article focused on another global campaign, one that in many ways trumped the Global Citizen Festival in its popularity and virality – the campaign, created by the NGO Invisible Children, called “KONY 2012”. The “KONY 2012” video exposed the war crimes of Ugandan rebel leader, Joseph Kony, while oversimplifying the narrative in order to capture the minds of impressionable (white, middle-class) youth to take action. The video generated 75 million views within just a few days; the results were unprecedented and to this day it remains one of the most popular internet videos of all time. The most egregious part of KONY 2012 was that it grossly oversimplified the issue and yet captivated the white audience into taking action, with little more than a click of a computer mouse. White youth could identify with the young boy (the videomaker’s son) in the video, while subsequently vilifying Joseph Kony as the “bad man”. The video’s global reach is still being talked about today – and the NGO released a follow up video that attempted to contextualize the problem a little further to assuage its critics.  The oversimplification and distortion of the true issues at hand are the metrics Cole measures during his argument about the White Savior Industrial Complex: “There are serious problems of governance, of infrastructure, of democracy, and of law and order. These problems are neither simple in themselves nor are they reducible to slogans.” (Cole, 2012) And yet, these types of narratives persist – they were televised in 1985, live-streamed in 2005, and Facebook “liked” in 2012 – without much focus on who is creating, disseminating and institutionalizing these types of events.

Social media, in particular, makes the task of shifting the discourse from one of majoritarian to counter-narrative extremely difficult. One critic of the KONY 2012 video, Jessie, wrote on the website Color Lines:

“The added dimension of social media also gets coded as constitutive of whiteness. As the voice over narration in the video observes, “we’re living in a new world, a Facebook world.” And, this new world is going to “stop” the atrocities of the “old, primitive” world. You see this throughout the video in the large crowd shots of the young people involved in the ‘Invisible Children’ campaign, who are almost universally white, are presented as the image of the ‘new, Facebook world’ intent on saving Africa.” (Jessie, 2012)

Since digital whiteness is everywhere, and resists being confronted, it perpetuates the codified, naturalness of “whites as the human race”, as Dyer (2010) put it. Whiteness, dominion and savior complexes only continue to grow in the mainstream discourse with the rise of social media – what’s to prevent a white, middle-class teenager from seeing a majoritarian video on Facebook from sharing it with her 1,000, equally impressionable, friends? As Zhang et al. (2010) wrote, “Whiteness practices and Christian ideology have contributed much to the savior versus the saved rhetoric of benevolence…they are reinvented in the cyberdiscourse of imperial imaginary” (Zhang et al., 2012, p. 217) Being recast as images, stories, and videos, white privilege and “otherness” become entangled in a digital mire of information. As the digital realm currently exists in its uncontrolled, unbounded, and unpolice-able form, we are left to react with horror when these types of imagery are shown and replicated time and time again, with little to no recourse.


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