Suffering Porn: The Flip-side of The White Savior Industrial Complex

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As many may have been exposed to, the KONY 2012 kerfuffle has been getting quite a lot of attention lately. There have been many responses critical to this particular “charitable cause” which I will not rehash here. However, I do want to point to an article by Teju Cole entitled “The White Savior Industrial Complex“. It is quite an insightful and careful piece about how contemporary development and privileged concern plays out large-scale. It carefully dissects the effects of a (perhaps) well-meaning but (usually) harmful system of aid towards the “developing world”–otherwise known as the formerly colonized “Other”. Cole says,

One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. From the colonial project to Out of Africa to The Constant Gardener and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of “making a difference.” To state this obvious and well-attested truth does not make me a racist or a Mau Mau.

What Cole is pointing to here is the larger discourse of Orientalism making complicit a racism that allows the superior Westerner a position to “save those who cannot save themselves”–which at once dis-empowers the abject Other and empowers the righteous Self. The problem, that Cole touches on, is that Orientalism is never divorced from global systems of power: be they economic, political or developmental. How do we “save” Africa, India… the developing world? Look to Iraq and Afghanistan for examples. Look to dismal but quite intentional track record of the IMF or the World Bank. The righteous salvation of the West  on the other is almost always allied in ways that empower or enrich the West. To debate how much good is done to the Other is to concede that the West decides what is good or bad for the Other.

This analysis is large, broad, complex and global. And necessary. However, there is a flip-side to this broad global analysis. It is an analysis of the insidious ways that Orientalism and neo- or post-colonial discourse impacts individuals to support the White Savior Industrial Complex. It speaks to the individual psychological payoff that individuals get when they think they are helping the Other and think they are being charitable. It is an analysis that may not itself be charitable. I have called it for a while now “Suffering Porn”.

The Sunday afternoon commercials that show malnourished African children with distended bellies and flies buzzing on their faces is Suffering Porn. The stream of news footage of refugees, or oppressed Muslim women, or whatever may be the Third-World calamity of the day is Suffering Porn. KONY is Suffering Porn. 

To analyze suffering porn, it may be well to look at what I’ve heard called the Sally Struther’s form of charity: The Sunday afternoon images of African babies WHO NEED OUR HELP if you’d only just call the one-eight-hundred number on the screen!!!! If we examine this in a certain way, fundamentally what we see is a certain tension implanted into the viewer/consumer who then releases this tension by, in this case, calling a number and donating money. They shoot their wad with a credit card and feel the release of that tension.

Pared down to these basics, this is porn; it is not sexual porn (though that sometimes is an element) but rather suffering porn. Sexual porn is the same. Pseudo-erotic tension (as opposed to pseudo-charitable tension) builds and is released through consumption. The difference with the consumer of suffering porn is that sexual orgiastic release is replaced by masturbatory economic release. And make no mistake, it is masturbatory.

The parallels between sexualized porn and suffering porn are many. Sexual porn is dominated by the male gaze–the implicit assumption of male audience and the construction of the semiotic space for tapping into and constructing the desires of male power. Suffering porn is dominated by the colonial gaze–implicitly convincing the viewer of their superiority and dominance over the Other in need of saving from their own suffering.

Anyone who knows history knows that most of this suffering is a direct result of how colonialism has transformed into global hegemony since decolonization. The representations of suffering porn feed this hegemony by helping to shape the discourse about the Other that leads to the multifarious major and micro oppressions that are disseminated globally.

So what do “we” do? There is actual suffering worldwide, and it is a good ally who shares their privilege with others, who uses their privilege to extend privileges to all. And that is what is so insidious about Suffering Porn. It takes that noble impulse and twists it. Instead of people autonomously making their local situation better with the assistance of those who take their direction, suffering porn takes the agency away from those to whom help might be given: from problematic representations to devastating development policy, the help that is given is often forced on rather than taken in good faith.

Again, what do we do? Well, I agree with Cote. The issues are so big and so complex that we need big, systemic, global change to affect things. Everything we’ve done so far too little too late. And what we need to do is local. It is the foreign policy of Western countries that needs to change. It is the global structures of capitalism that need change. It is big things like this.

But, it is also little things. It is saying, when one sees these representations of the other that make us want to help, is picking up the phone, donating to paypal, etc. the best way to help? Or rather, is the orgiastic payoff for the privileged even better served by electing governments and supporting companies that will change things large-scale? Finally, it is by doing research.

Now, the picture I give above is a very West/Rest analysis, which is to the nature of the the particular example I am talking about. But you just watch Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and tell me it isn’t also some form of Suffering Porn. And how is that kind of suffering porn connected to and supporting of the kind I talk about above. Because trust me, the dots are there. And these problems are both large and global, and personal and psychological.

And, finally, out of curiosity… what is your favorite suffering porn fix?

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