?

Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

The White Savior Industrial Complex - The Atlantic

This article goes right to the heart of what has bothered me for years about people like me: people who work for humanitarian organizations, with good intentions, with a desire to do real good in situations that are challenging, complex, and in which there are no clear answers. As a writer, I am keenly aware of the moral ambiguity of so much of human endeavour and sense of self, and I relish telling that story. As a person, it gets me depressed as hell. But it's true.

And this is particularly true of "our" work. At some level, practically every statement of moral outrage is hypocritical. Practically every effort for good is counter-productive in some way. Practically every evil has a legitimate and understandable reason behind it.

Which is not the same as saying anything goes or nothing matters. There is still the need to avoid that slide into moral vacuum, the desire to face that challenge and to do the thing appropriate to the situation. Which means 99 percent listening and only one percent talking. Which means doubting everything and still choosing to act. Which means repairing the wrong you've done in trying to do right.

I asked a lifelong human-rights campaigner if he felt like he had made a difference. I was helping him close down his office after Bush came in and his funders had said "your approach is wrong in this current political climate," and he was forced to go fallow for some years. He told me that I was asking a stupid question. That it was never about accomplishing anything. It was always about pushing back. And that game, he said, you will never win.

It's all hard. All the time. And it never gets better. It was never meant to. That's why we should be proud of being cynical sons-of-bitches and keep fighting. Ourselves most of all.

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
asakiyume
Mar. 25th, 2012 12:44 pm (UTC)
Yes, that article was very, very good, and what you say here, and what the human-rights campaigner says, too.


Which means doubting everything and still choosing to act. Which means repairing the wrong you've done in trying to do right.


Yes. It takes, I believe, profound humility--and yet that's a detrimental trait if you have to persuade people to part with their money, or if you have to apply for grants. But you [general you--not you, necessarily... though probably you too, and me too] have to be willing to get it wrong, self-correct, keep trying. You have to be willing to act even knowing that you might get it wrong. This is so hard, because society and our peers heap such condemnation on those who they do see getting it wrong. I think it's fine and right to critique Jason Russell--because otherwise you *do* just perpetuate the white industrial savior complex--but at the same time, I think we have to recognize that the only way to get to something more right and appropriate is by making the mistake in the first place. You make the mistake, and in doing so, you see how it doesn't work... and so you try something else.

I guess I don't want to see people so afraid of getting it wrong, or so abashed at sticking their noses into dirty business not their own, that they end up thinking that the only thing they can properly care about is problems within ten miles of their home. To look at it another way, sure, the Chinese should take care of their pollution problem and their internal economic migrants problem--but that doesn't mean they can't point out the racism in American society that leads to things like the Trayvon Martin story.


barry_king
Mar. 25th, 2012 04:50 pm (UTC)
The parting of people with their money is always the catch. I'm not a great fan of private funding anymore. Replacing a state agenda with a private agenda means that once again, the wealthy get a say, because working for one large check means you have more time to do your real work and less time fundraising.

On the other hand, states monies is often equally problematic and the convolutions of foreign policy in particular leave a lot of gaps unaddressed.

I'm more inclined to think that among us privileged north americans, general lobbying for national health-care, living wages, and pension-investement protection is much more important than any kind of hand-wringery. It leaves people more able to choose to devote some part of their time to causes that they support in the manner they are best able to do so.

But more than anything, it gives people the time to learn and experiment before they commit to a grand plan. So far the best response to the whole Kony 2012 fiasco I have seen has been this one: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/03/201231284336601364.html -- someone who is simply saying "find out the facts before you act, and take a good long hard look before you do an action you cannot withdraw from." Like a war.

I think that's the greatest problem with this "judgementalism" you describe nowadays. Internet empowerment is the empowerment to shoot your mouth off before you have an idea of what you're talking about. It's a kind of entitlement of knowledge of the self over experience of the other. Or even just knowledge over experience.

With most things, the more you experience, the less you know. After fifteen years of being steeped in the problem, I recognize that I know NOTHING about how to deal with refugee issues. But I do see places like Dadaab and Gaza and know pretty much the combination of good intentions, wishful thinking, and incompetence (in the face of some disasters EVERYONE is incompetent) which made them happen, and have a few ideas on how to prevent them from happening again. But these ideas need to be tried, and they will likely prove inadequate.
asakiyume
Mar. 27th, 2012 04:32 am (UTC)
After fifteen years of being steeped in the problem, I recognize that I know NOTHING about how to deal with refugee issues. But I do see places like Dadaab and Gaza and know pretty much the combination of good intentions, wishful thinking, and incompetence (in the face of some disasters EVERYONE is incompetent) which made them happen, and have a few ideas on how to prevent them from happening again.

This statement actually is hopeful, given the world and human nature. Courage!
barry_king
Mar. 27th, 2012 12:36 pm (UTC)
Speaking of TED, there is one that I found hopeful on the subject: http://www.ted.com/talks/paul_conneally_digital_humanitarianism.html
asakiyume
Mar. 28th, 2012 01:20 am (UTC)
That was fascinating. I was especially impressed with the kids who created a map of Kibera, and information about what was happening where, there.
peadarog
Mar. 25th, 2012 05:12 pm (UTC)
Great post. That is all.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )