If you’re not familiar with the key features of the industrial complex concept, read this short primer article I wrote first then come back.
If you were on the internet in 2012 (and you have a very good memory), you may remember Kony 2012. A short documentary about the Ugandan militant Joseph Kony that went super-viral (it’s pretty gross, I don’t recommend it, and it’s not necessary to watch it to understand the rest of this article).
It was hugely popular, and hugely criticised, and is quite the internet rabbit hole including the very naked and very public psychotic break of the film’s director and ‘star’ (I don’t recommend going there either, that’s two hours of this beautiful life that I’m never getting back).
What is worth getting into, in my opinion, is the work of Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole who coined the term white saviour industrial complex in this powerful sequence of tweets prompted by the film:
1- From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex.
2- The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.
3- The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.
4- This world exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people and Oprah.
5- The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.
6- Feverish worry over that awful African warlord. But close to 1.5 million Iraqis died from an American war of choice. Worry about that.
7- I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.
Before you keep reading, I recommend re-reading the tweets a few times, they’re big. Then taking a moment to notice and jot down your own reactions to them.
Cole got a new mic for this powerful article (which I highly recommend reading) in the wake of his tweets, where he explores the reactions they provoked and expands on his argument, that at the bare minimum “If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement”.
This is the bone I gnaw on constantly. Caring is a good impulse but it’s not simple to actually do good in such a complex world. Lots of doing good actually does harm. What looks like resolutions and relief in the short term often perpetuates long-term patterns of domination that keep oppressed and exploited populations exactly where they are (in need of ‘care’, apparently of the white, western kind).
This is the crux of many debates about helping – the old ends justifying means debate. But this debate, that alleviating immediate suffering justifies perpetuating systems of domination, as Cole suggests, doesn’t have across-the-board support from those experiencing the domination and immediate suffering, and shows itself to be yet another strategy to perpetuate inequality.
Somebody else’s work I think is worth getting into is policy anthropologist Tess Lea. In her excellent book Bureaucrats and bleeding hearts: indigenous health in northern Australia, Lea explores among other things, the deep assumption by the settler-colonial state and its clinicians and consultants that they have to do something.
This belief that black and brown bodies need white help is long engrained in the western European psyche and part of the script for domination. It’s served as an excuse for colonialism in its many forms (territorial, cultural, medical, religious etc) and underpins the ongoing project that is the settler-colonial state. And it’s big money, mostly for white people.
I was doing a research project in Alice Springs a couple of years ago, interviewing non-indigenous mental health clinicians in the region. When I asked them if they thought things were getting better for Aboriginal people in central Australia, not one of them said yes. Things were getting worse. Whatever they were doing wasn’t helping. Most of them attributed this to the difficulty of recruiting good clinicians to the area (demonstrating Lea’s point). Many of them also reflected, with knowing looks, on the amount of money being made by white people, including themselves, supposedly helping the indigenous population.
Smells like an industrial complex.
Complexity of Care
For me, this all sits within the complex topic of care: how our deep caring urges can be dangerous in a world structured by and for inequity.
And in a capitalist global economy that attempts to monetise everything, our divine, delicate and dangerous humanity is turned into a commodity, a product to sell: for money, for good PR, for warm fuzzy feelings.
Caring becomes an industrial complex – an economic system that can only financially succeed if it fails in it’s goal to provide care.
I don’t know how to end this post.
It’s so depressing which then tempts me to try and end on some kind of inspiring or positive note. But I suspect that would somehow follow the pattern Cole is trying to illuminate: life isn’t supposed to be a feel-good arc for the privileged minority.
If you do need something to reconnect with the glory that is humans, check out these great playlists Cole has put together or this amazing performance of Mic Drop and Run BTS by BTS (for those who like crunchy K-Pop (my secret’s out)).
What does Cole’s articulation of the white industrial complex help you reflect on?
Other thoughts on the complexity of caring?
Pop ’em in the comments section below.